“What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to?” asked a curious Winston Churchill of his advisors in the summer of 1952. “What can it mean? What is the truth?”
The 77-year-old prime minister had good reason to feel inquisitive. It was the height of the Cold War, and the news had been filled by stories of odd lights and entities invading the sky above Washington DC.
These sightings had re-ignited the ‘flying saucer’ phenomenon that began in earnest following the famous Roswell incident a few years earlier, in which a mysterious airborne disc - later explained away as a weather balloon - was believed to have crashed near a ranch in New Mexico.
The episode opened the floodgates to accounts of unidentified flying objects from the public and military personnel, leading the Government to set up its own ‘UFO desk’, as it became popularly known, to examine reports that reached the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall.
People didn’t simply submit letters. For more than 60 years until the unit was scrapped in 2009, witnesses sent in photographs, drawings and even elaborate paintings of what they had spotted - the most remarkable of which are highlighted in a new book by Dr David Clarke.
David, a former Star and Yorkshire Post journalist who is now a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, has worked with the National Archives since 2008, when the decision was taken to start disclosing all 60,000 pages of the MoD’s UFO files in full, a process that has only just finished.
His interest in extraterrestrial folklore goes back a long way. Indeed, he can pinpoint the moment when, as a 10-year-old Sheffield schoolboy in 1977, he became an enthusiast by watching a BBC TV documentary called Out of this World. Then, months later, he saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the old Gaumont Cinema in Barker’s Pool.
“I distinctly remember coming out and thinking ‘Wow’,” says David. When we meet, he’s about to watch the re-released Close Encounters again on the big screen, his passion undimmed.
“It was something I was interested in all through my teenage years. I’d been to see Star Wars, and I bought all these pulpy books and comics about aliens and flying saucers.”
The book represents a culmination of sorts.
“The last thing I did on this subject, I was hoping that was it, I could draw a line under this - but it keeps coming back.”
David’s UFO research began in the late 1990s when he was still at The Star and the Freedom of Information Act was being introduced. He realised that journalists would benefit if they picked a ‘quirky’ enough subject, so plumped for flying saucers.
“At the time, The X-Files was massive on TV. Everybody was talking about it, there were all these films like Independence Day, and I just thought it was a good target. I didn’t think I’d get anywhere, but I had the most amazing success. Documents just started dropping through my letterbox.”
By helping the National Archives he became a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. He had always visited the site in Kew on January 1 each year to pounce on any UFO papers released under the 30-year rule, so was their go-to man to advise on the papers’ disclosure.
“I had the most fantastic time. There were 10 separate media releases of the files. It was just a whirlwind.”
The book is David’s third on the archives’ papers, and is part of publisher Four Corners Books’ Irregulars series - handsomely-bound titles that present a ‘visual history of modern British culture’. He was approached by the imprint to pick the images and explain their stories.
Naturally, he has favourites - near the top of his list is the ‘Solway Spaceman’, an unsettling picture taken by a man called Jim Templeton of his five-year-old daughter Elizabeth on a family day out in 1964. The photo triggered global speculation as a strange figure in white, which some thought could be an alien interloper, can be seen behind Elizabeth’s head.
David has a theory about the picture, however. He thinks the spaceman is really Templeton’s wife, who was there on the day.
“He didn’t see his wife’s hat or something blow off, and she went and retrieved it, turned around and that shot is her, with her back to the camera.”
Jim never accepted this idea, though.
“Once you’ve got that attention from all over the world, you don’t want to change your story.”
One man who did come clean was Alex Birch, who as a 14-year-old photographed five UFOs in the sky near Mosborough. Alex - who caught on camera another flying saucer above Retford in 2004 - eventually said he’d faked the Sheffield image but, in 1997, claimed his confession was itself a hoax.
Does David believe it wasn’t a fake?
“I believe that he believes it.”
In fact, he isn’t particularly concerned about whether UFOs exist or not.
“I’m just interested in people’s beliefs about them, and why people believe in them, rather than - as some UFO people do - getting obsessive about trying to prove the Government know these things exist and they’re covering it up for some bizarre reason.”
David, who is Hallam’s journalism course leader, says his ‘long-term project’ is to establish a folklore archive at the university. His research extends far beyond flying saucers to urban legends, ghost stories and Sheffield’s underground tunnels.
He took his PhD at Sheffield University, which once had a dedicated folklore centre, but no longer teaches the specialism as a subject.
“I’d like to call it the Centre for Contemporary Legend Studies at Hallam.”
David, aged 50, lives in Walkley with partner Carolyn Waudby, also a Hallam journalism lecturer, and is speaking at the Off The Shelf festival next month about the Angels of Mons - spirits said to have helped British troops in World War One.
He is also talking about his new book next March at Kew, where a themed exhibition is being held.
Anyone still convinced of a cover-up will forever be thwarted, it seems.
“I don’t believe you could possibly hide something that big. I’ve seen odd things in the sky, but I’ve always been able to identify what they are.”
UFO Drawings From The National Archives is out now, priced £12. Visit www.fourcornersbooks.co.uk for details.
The Government ‘had to take UFOs seriously’ by keeping files, David Clarke says, as sightings intensified at the peak of Cold War paranoia.
“We laugh about these things now, but the reason they set up this UFO desk in the first place was they seriously thought it was some kind of spy plane the Russians had built using captured German technology from the end of the Second World War.”
Alex Birch - the teenage Mosborough photographer - was quizzed and had his Box Brownie camera dismantled by rattled MoD officers.
Some reports of flying saucers from RAF airmen were ‘very credible’, says David, but he adds: “I don’t think they’ve seen aliens. They’ve seen some kind of natural phenomenon from the atmosphere that we don’t know about.”
Descriptions of UFOs in the files are incredibly varied with little consistency - from flat discs to egg-shaped vehicles and cylindrical craft. The ministry would usually reply to correspondents, saying it remained ‘totally open-minded’ about the existence of extraterrestrials.
Following the MoD desk’s closure, there is no official port of call for witnesses. People can tell the police, and the Civil Aviation Authority quietly accepts accounts from pilots.