Recently I was interviewed by BBC television for a forthcoming story about the extraordinary Great British Flying Saucer Hoax of 1967, an incident I have researched exhaustively over many years. A contractual obligation which had delayed publication of my book account is now lifted and I am hopeful it can be published in the near future.
Meanwhile, with the 50th anniversary looming (and the 40th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind) I have started a new Facebook page to share some of the existing media coverage my research has directly stimulated – and I would still be delighted to hear from anyone who was involved or can recall the incidents.
The first item I am adding is this 2007 article originally published in Wiltshire Life magazine:
Close Encounters of the Absurd Kind
‘When a small Flying Saucer landed in the middle of a field in Chippenham, what followed was worthy of an Ealing comedy, says film-maker John Keeling’
What would we do if aliens landed? (Fifty) years ago Wiltshire found out when Chippenham saw the explosive finale of the most extraordinary UFO scare Britain ever faced.
Long before crop circles drew thrill-seekers to Wiltshire, the county was already Britain’s mecca for UFO buffs. Sky-watches lured thousands to Warminster in the hope of glimpsing The Thing reportedly haunting the skies. BY 1967 this craze was nationwide as Britain found itself in the throes of a UFO epidemic. Many believed the long-awaited landings were imminent. On Monday, September 4th of that year, it looked like they were right.
Dick Jennings, 45, of Elm Tree Farm, Chippenham, was a down-to-earth bloke. The last thing he expected to see was a Flying Saucer. Let alone a landed one. But there it was at the top of his field; silvery, seamless, and bleeping. It might have been no more than five feet long but then how big are little green men?
Getting down from his tractor, Jennings tried tipping the surprisingly heavy Saucer and something shifted inside it.
“I thought it might be something that had fallen off an aeroplane,” he told me, “but I could see no boltholes. That thing, in my opinion, had to be dropped from the air, so I thought to myself what the bloody hell’s this?”
The thought occurred that he could be a victim of TV’s Candid Camera, but a look about revealed no sniggering TV crews. So he rushed home to tell his daughter Mary, 21, who was still in bed.
Little Green Men
Get up and grab your camera!” hollered Jennings. “There’s something in the field and it looks like a flying saucer. I’m going to ring the police”.
As a bemused Mary hurriedly dressed she could hear her father on the phone. Surely he was joking?
PC Richard French, who took the call, thought so too:
“Oh yes,” he said, “And are there any little green men running round it?”
“I haven’t seen any,” replied Jennings, without humour. “But it’s making a ticking noise. You had better come and have a look at it.”
The family bundled into a Mini and raced to the field to get photographs. Mary, a school teacher, was equally baffled.
“Having Warminster close by there was a lot of talk about Flying Saucers. It was always at the back of your mind.”
Sergeant Tony Richens was the first Police officer to arrive. He took one look at the Saucer and promptly decided no- one was going anywhere near it. Inspecting it gingerly from an adjoining field, he radioed for back-up.
“The police were very anxious,” recalls Mary.
“Not with your bare hands!”
Reinforcements arrived quickly and a cordon was immediately placed along Saltersford Lane to keep traffic away. Divisional driver PC Peter Palfrey recalls arriving with Inspector Frank Dummett. To get to the Saucer they now had to negotiate a field spread with fresh pig-muck, and so with trousers tucked into socks they trudged across to the silvery invader.
Says PC Palfrey:
“Frank asked ‘Well what the hell do you think this is?’ ”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but the damn thing is bleeping.”
“I don’t like the look of this,” said the Inspector, “we had better get the hell out of here and stand back a bit!”
A former Second World War pilot, Dummett was no stranger to aerospace but he had never seen anything like this before.
“I thought if it has come from way up in the stratosphere it could be contaminated in some way. Somebody went to touch it and I shouted ‘Not with your bare hands!’ ”
With the spectre of radioactive contamination came a new fear – could it be a secret weapon? A Special Branch officer among the growing throng (who has asked not to be identified) was wondering the same thing.
“I was aware there were military operations going on at RAF Boscombe Down,” he confided, “that certain things were flying about, that they were man-made and they were highly secret. I didn’t doubt that people were seeing things but what they were seeing was not from outer space.”
But not this time. It was time to call in the RAF.
Meanwhile, press was arriving in increasing numbers, including HTV and BBC radio. Fairly chomping at the bit to examine the Saucer, their chance came in a scene that could have come from an Ealing comedy. Dick Jennings returned on his tractor with more pig slurry and was refused entry.
“Have you touched it?” challenged an officer. Jennings admitted he had. “In that case we’ve got to put a Geiger counter on you.”
“B****r off!” countered the phlegmatic farmer. “I’m not having that – I’ve got work to do.”
Daughter Mary laughs:
“So, in drove Dad on his tractor. A small pack of the press congregated behind the spreader and crept up the field! I’m sorry I didn’t get a photo of that.”
The excitable media got plenty, however. Footage of Dick and his Saucer would appear on that evening’s national news bulletins and the front page of the next day’s Daily Mirror. In it, hapless police officers can be seen peering over the hedge from the next field.
RAF Pilot Officer David Pepper had no solution to the mystery either, quickly deciding ‘it’ had not fallen from any aircraft; at least not one of ‘ours’.
“It looked exactly like what it was,” laughs Pepper, “a small Flying Saucer.”
‘S**t! Now what do we do?’
So if it wasn’t from an aircraft, or a secret weapon, could it be the real thing? Unknown to the intrepid folks of Chippenham, it was a question the MOD was asking. Because Chippenham was not alone, so to speak. Whitehall had received reports of another five landings – identical Saucers, neatly cleaving the country in two along the 51.5 degree parallel. Not so much a landing as an invasion.
Defence Intelligence staffer Cliff Watson recalls the initial reaction:
“Well there is a first time for everything!” he laughs. “When we first heard about this we thought S***! Now what do we do? But when it became apparent they were all along this line we began to smell a rat.”
The Metropolitan Police, Kent, Berkshire and Somerset Constabularies were all going through the same drama. An RAF helicopter was scrambled to the Isle of Sheppey. BAC Guided Weapons sent a boffin to Clevedon. And when reports that RAF personnel had been sprayed with foul-smelling gunge from one in Berkshire, and Aldermaston Atomic Weapons facility was testing the contents amid fears of germ warfare, Scotland Yard, Air Ministry and Defence Intelligence staff raced to Bromley where another Saucer had been discovered on a golf course. Yet for hours, each site thought it had the only one. Only the Ministry of Defence had the full picture, and they had no idea what was going on.
3, 2, 1… Welcome to planet Earth
If the press at Chippenham had got wind of other ‘landings’, the police had seemingly not. Determined to solve the mystery they called in the army, in the meantime moving the Saucer to the police station and then to the council-owned Little England rubbish dump. Moving a suspicious object like this was a very risky business. At any rate, army Captain Freddie Cantrell arrived with blue lights flashing.
“I was pretty certain it was not from outer space,” recalls Cantrell. “It was so clean – there were no abrasions, burn marks or dents. You would have expected some distortion unless it had a very soft landing.”
This is certainly down-to-earth thinking. But is it making terrestrial assumptions about a potentially extra-terrestrial object? Capt. Cantrell offered to open up the Saucer with high-velocity plastic explosives and the police set about ensuring the area was completely clear. In doing so, Inspector Dummett made a discovery that he was still chuckling about more than 30 years later.
In the reeds of the riverbank that formed the boundary to the tip, he saw a courting couple having a very ‘close encounter’, so to speak. “Excuse me,” I said, “they’re just about to blow up a UFO.”
‘“Oh my God!” they cried. They came out flying!”
It wasn’t the last anti-climax of the day.
When Capt. Cantrell had set the charge, everyone took cover. To sound a warning for the imminent blast, Insp. Dummett was going to use his police whistle.
“He had never blown his whistle,” laughs PC Gabe Tilsed. “When he tried, fluff and God-knows- what came out!”
It was hardly auspicious. With the HTV cameras rolling, the press snapping, and presumably a straight face, Capt. Cantrell hollered ‘three, two, one!’ and pushed the firing button.
And nothing happened.
The detonator had failed. Cantrell had to wait a statutory 30 minutes before the nerve-wracking job of replacing the detonator. This time it worked. But there were no little green men. Instead the Saucer spewed out a quantity of thick greyish gunge described as looking like ‘soft, gooey bread’. According to all, it stank to high heaven.
“Irish stew in the name of the law!” quipped DC John Cass, hoping his senior officer hadn’t overheard.
The shattered guts of the Saucer revealed batteries, an electronic circuit, a loudspeaker, and a mercury switch to operate it. The gunge proved to be a dough made from boiled flour and water. The culprits were student apprentices from the prestigious Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. When traced, their ringleader Chris Southall, 21, said:
“We believe Flying Saucers may land one day so we thought we would give the authorities a bit of practise.”
To this day, no one knows the true cost to the taxpayer of their ingenious simulation. Some police forces were furious, threatening prosecution. But Chippenham’s finest took it like gentlemen. They even had a whip-round at the station and sent a donation to the students’ rag fund, complete with a tiny green Trog figure from a keyring. The accompanying letter said: “This is the only one we were able to capture but we pleased to learn it was their leader.”
Dick Jennings was disappointed.
“I was hoping we were going to be the only one that had a Flying Saucer. I could have sold that field for a million pounds!”
[There will be further updates on this story].
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