What happened at the Rendelsham Forest Incident, Britain's answer to Roswell?

Mysterious lights shine through a forest at night
Image: Shutterstock

In December 1980, a series of mysterious lights beamed from Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk, England. The unexplained phenomenon is one of the most famous reported UFO events in history and has garnered the nickname of ‘Britain’s Roswell’, a nod to the well-known UFO incident that took place in New Mexico in 1947.

The Rendlesham Forest Incident has taken on near-mythical status. What is the truth of it though? Over forty years on, are we any closer to understanding what exactly happened that cold and frosty winter's night? To answer this question we must, of course, go back to the start and relive the events of 26th December 1980.

Within the leafy surroundings of Rendlesham Forest was RAF Woodbridge, a WWII era military airfield, which at that time was occupied by the United States Air Force (USAF). In the early hours of Boxing Day morning, USAF personnel claimed to see strange lights descend into the nearby forest.

Initially believing the source of the light to be a downed aircraft, the men went to investigate. Upon entering the forest, the servicemen could hear animals from a nearby farm going ‘into a frenzy’. As they approached the area, they spotted what they would later describe as a ‘glowing object with coloured lights’, that quickly flew away in the direction of the nearby coast.

Returning to the same spot at daybreak, the men found a small clearing, said to contain three impressions on the ground creating a triangular shape. Burn marks and broken branches were also reported on the surrounding trees.

Two days later, deputy base commander Lieutenant Colonel Charles I Halt, who detailed the events in a memo to the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), went into the forest with the servicemen in the early hours. After taking him to the clearing to show him the impressions on the ground, Halt witnessed similar events to those on the 26th. The farm animals were making a racket whilst a flashing light was said to descend upon the men.

Halt then described three mysterious illuminations, likening them to stars but hovering just above the horizon with the occasional stream of light beaming down from them.

Two weeks later, Halt sent his memo to the MoD. Apart from hearsay and rumour, the general public was none the wiser about the events of December 1980.

However, two suited men visited forestry worker Vince Thurkettle during that period, bombarding him with questions about whether he saw anything on the nights in question.

‘They said “Did you leave the house at all? Did you see anything?” I said: “What?”

‘They said: “Oh, there's a report of some red lights in the forest... We're just checking.” And the two of them, very politely but firmly, asked me probably about 20 questions. I thought they were journalists.’

‘They suddenly said: “Oh well, fair enough. There's probably nothing in it.” And left.’

‘So, I bought the papers every day for the next few days to find out what was going on and, of course, there was nothing.’

It took a further three years for the memo to be released into the public domain by the U.S. government. When it did, the story hit headlines across the world. Rendlesham Forest became the UFO capital of the UK, with the event spawning numerous books, TV shows and articles. Capitalising on its newfound fame, the Forestry Commission created a UFO trail in the forest, that even features a model of what the American servicemen claimed to have seen.

The question remains, did the events witnessed on the 26th and 28th December 1980 definitively constitute an encounter with an extra-terrestrial object? Lieutenant Colonel Halt believed that what he and the others saw was outer-worldly, going on record again in 2010 to state it was real and the UK and U.S. governments covered it up.

Craig Charles and renowned astrophysicist Sarah Cruddas interview Lieutenant Colonel Halt as part of the upcoming show Craig Charles: UFO Conspiracies. The pair pore over every available piece of evidence as they attempt to get to the bottom of the no-infamous case. They also look into another incident within Area 51 that could hold the key to working out what happened.

Whilst many believe it was a UFO that descended into the forest that night, there are a great number of sceptics who feel there is little truth in that version of events.

Around the time the initial ‘glowing object’ was seen descending into the forest, a meteor called a fireball by astronomers, was recorded over southern England. Fireballs are often linked with a spike in UFO reports and that night in 1980, the one that fell from the sky was said to be an exceptionally bright one. Could the Rendlesham Forest Incident simply be a case of misidentification?

What about the flashing beam of light the servicemen saw upon entering the forest? It has been suggested that the source of this was the nearby Orfordness Lighthouse, which is known to have shone in the direction of the forest before.

On the night of the first incident, local police were called to the scene. They reported seeing nothing but the light beaming from the lighthouse, which at the time was one of the brightest lighthouses in the UK.

Halt’s description of three mysterious star-like illuminations hovering in the night’s sky has been argued by sceptics to be none other than actual stars. Bright stars distorted by atmospheric effects are another common source of UFO sightings.

As for the forest clearing with its broken branches and burn marks, Thurkettle saw the area for himself and believed it was nothing special.

‘It was an absolutely normal glade in the forest with three rabbit scrapes, and they're all carefully marked, that happened to be roughly in a triangle.’

‘It was a completely natural glade. And they've said things like: “But there were broken branches.” Well, the forest is full of broken branches.’

‘They saw burn marks on the trees. They said: “Obviously there was heat radiating out from the spacecraft and it burnt these trees.” But it wasn't. It was one of the rangers, Bill Briggs, with an axe.’

As for the mysterious men who visited Thurkettle, most likely they were local journalists having heard the rumours from the police who were called out by the USAF on the first night.

The government released files in 2001 that showed the MoD investigated the incident. However, with little evidence beyond the memo, they quickly decided to take no further action.

Over the years alternative theories have been proposed to explain what the American servicemen witnessed. Some have claimed it was a downed Soviet spy satellite, considering the Cold War was at its height during this time. Others have suggested it was the military secretly experimenting with energy fields in the forest.

The whole thing might even have been a hoax. One former U.S. security policeman claimed responsibility for causing it by modifying the lights on his police vehicle and driving around the forest.

David Clarke, an academic and investigative journalist who specialises in UFO research stated, ‘We've reached an impasse. There are those who can only see it in black and white terms - aliens or people from the future came here. Or it's the sceptical version - that people are lying or they have been misled by ordinary things. The more it is elaborated on, the more it becomes a legend.’

Whilst it may seem the Rendlesham Forest Incident can be explained by a series of misinterpretations of various night-lights, both man-made and atmospheric, nothing may ever be written in stone about the events of 1980.