Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Lights in the sky: 100 years of UFOs over Lincolnshire (1909-2009)

This was an article written as part of one of my MA portfolios last year. I'm a bit of a paranormal geek, and I stumbled across some articles about the 1909 'Scareship' stories. It peaked my interest so I compiled a brief list of notable UFO incidents from the Lincolnshire area stretching from Peterborough to Immingham across the last century. Enjoy...

Strange lights in the sky have been documented in writing and art for the past one-thousand years, yet it was only in the 20th century that a popular belief in, firstly foreign flying machines and later extra-terrestrial vehicles, emerged. Whether or not you believe the truth is indeed out there, with the 100 year anniversary of UFOs over the UK coinciding with the national archives release of the Ministry of Defences UFO files, it gives researchers a chance to expose the scale of the country's relationship with aerial phenomenon. Sean M. Palfrey speaks to former MoD UFO investigator Nick Pope, and journalist Nigel Watson about Lincolnshire's UFO history.

Part 1:'The Scareships!'
It began in the year 1909, a time of great tension between the superpowers of the day. Germany built and launched many new Dreadnaught class battle ships and MPs from Lincolnshire and other eastern counties were raising concerns over possible plans for an invasion by the Germans. It was widely believed that espionage was “Rampant” in East Anglia and that German warships were encroaching into British waters - in some cases grazing the mouth of the Humber (On 12 May 1909 according to Sir George Doughty MP for Grimsby). It was at this time that reports of phantom airships appeared in the eastern counties and south Wales.

The reports came from a wide cross section people including a Peterborough constable. The sightings were characterized by descriptions of Zeppelin-like airships with whirring engines and search lights performing night reconnaissance. Zeppelins and airship technology is widely believed to have been in the prototype stage and incapable of crossing the North Sea at the time although former MoD investigator Nick Pope thinks otherwise.
“At any given time, aerospace technology will be 10 or 15 years more advanced than publicly acknowledged and there will be prototype aircraft and drones being flown that you won't see in the media or at air shows for many years. So I suspect that these pre-WW1 sightings were prototype airships.”
Some reports even mentioned the craft being so close they could spot the crew on the deck below that main cigar-shaped gas balloon. In a few cases some witnesses reported “close encounters” with the ‘foreign crews’ when the ships landed. This according to journalist Nigel Watson is concurrent with modern day UFO reports.
“Just like UFO sightings today. The fear of the military use of the Zeppelin and aircraft in general meant that anything unusual in the sky was 'seen' with this mind set.”
Most of the reports were dismissed as hysteria by many newspapers at the time. Though the papers themselves did more than their share to fuel the fires according to Pope.
“The media covered this in a sensationalist manner, dubbing them 'Scareships'. The view put forward was that they were German weapons or reconnaissance devices and this played to pre-war hysteria and anti-German sentiment.”
However, despite reoccurring sightings over the next few years, it wasn’t until the First World War and the Zeppelin bombing raids on the east of England did the threat become serious. Watson's conclusion is:
“I think the media encouraged and reflected the fear of aircraft in general and Zeppelins in particular as new weapons that took warfare to the civilian population. They also made a mockery of the ring of steel provided by the Royal Navy that had been our first line of defence against invasion. I think the population was fearful as they did not know what to expect from these frightening weapons that could spy on them and rain down bombs on them with impunity.”
After the first world war the mystery of the airships lay all but buried in news paper archives until journalist Charles Fort (who lends his name to what is now known as Fortean phenomena) began to research the incidents for his book 'Lo!' (1931).
Though modern researchers often compare the ‘Scareships’ to the post world war two ‘Flying Saucer’ phenomenon there was almost no mention of the possibility of extra terrestrial origins for the sightings (Except from the afore mentioned Mr. Fort). In many cases where ‘close encounters’ were reported the crews were described as human and usually foreign. This probably says more about the socio-psychological climate of the time.
Due to the only reports of 'Scareships' in Lincolnshire being found in the newspaper archives, details on the encounters from witnesses are sketchy and fleeting. As such it is hard to create a solid picture of events. Some of these events were even widely reported in the national newspapers of the time. However, there are a few incidents that were reported from which we can see the spread of the phenomenon in the county 100 years ago.

Scareships in Lincolnshire:
– Over Lincoln, May 1909 (no further info)
– Over Stamford, May 1909 (Seen by a local resident ‘Mr. Cole’)
– Over the Wash, 1909 (No Further Details)
– Over Grimsby, 1913 (seen by a local police constable, but further investigation found it to be a box kite)
– Over the sea off Grimsby, 1913 (Seen by Crew of the Steamer ‘City of Leeds’ in good weather, with binoculars for two full minutes)
See for more.

Source: Ministry of Defense

Part 2: 'Flying Saucers!'
In the period of time following World War II, a new 'social enemy' was rising - the Stalinist Soviet Union. Tensions between the superpowers of the USA, Russia, and Western Europe were racing to create new and bigger deterrents. The paranoia among the populous of imminent destruction began to increase. At this time a new aerial phenomenon began to emerge.
Firstly in the USA pilot Kenneth Arnold spotted a 'V' formation of disc-like craft from his plane (not dissimilar to the 'Foo Fighters' seen by WWII airmen). The press latched onto these 'Flying Saucers' and soon similar sightings began flooding in; including a sighting near Roswell, New Mexico where it was alleged by witnesses that two flying saucers crashed. The Roswell incident became embedded in American folklore and science fiction wasn't far behind as the media was soon saturated with all kinds of books, movies and merchandise.
The UK soon followed suit with waves of unexplained aerial phenomenon being reported, the numbers of which were only made available recently from the national archives release of the MoD's UFO files according to Nick Pope.
“Clearly the release of the MoD's UFO files has brought to media and public attention numerous cases that were not previously known. This is true of Lincolnshire as indeed it's true for all parts of the UK.”
In 1952 even Former Prime Minister Winston Chruchill's attention was peaked enough to send a memo to his ministers asking “What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth? Let me have a report at your convenience.” The response he got wasn't dissimilar to the explanations for the majority of UFO causes that Nick Pope would come across which included “Aircraft lights, meteors, satellites, bright stars/planets and, nowadays, Chinese lanterns.”
Lincolnshire's relationship with UFO's has been an interesting one. Whereas close encounters of the third (observation of animate beings with the UFO) and fourth (abduction) kinds are rare. The majority of sightings in the county have been more in line with encounters of the first (seeing an UFO in daylight, night, or on radar) and second kinds (seeing the effects of a UFO on the environment around the sighting).
However in 1970, if later reports on the incident are to be believed, a possible close encounter of the sixth kind (resulting in death) happened to an American airman based at RAF Binbrook, Lincolnshire. These reports of UFO involvement have been largely disproved, but the incident has done a lot to capture the UFO community's imagination.
In 2009 the country's interest was once again peaked by a four word headline – “UFO Hits Wind Turbine” – a damaged wind turbine in Lincolnshire was found the morning after a UFO was reported in the area by a member of the County Council the previous night. Analysis of the broken turbine was described by an expert as "unique". No conclusive evidence has be found to link the object reported with the damage to the turbine, but nonetheless the incident has further ensured Lincolnshire's place on the UFO map.

UFOs in Lincolnshire:
– An American pilot stationed at RAF Binbrook, Captain William Schaffner's plane fatally crashed into the North Sea. Disproved reports of UFO involvement surfaced in the early 90’s (September 1970)
– Witnesses report two lights attached to an oval object as they drove from Market Rasen to Scunthorpe (July 1978) Flying Saucer Review Vol 24 No 5.
– In 2009 a wind turbine at Conisholme was badly damaged in a way described as “Unique” by a spokesman for the electricity company that owned the turbine. A County Councillor reported seeing a “round, white light that seemed to be hovering” over the turbine (January 2009)
– Several witnesses report a bright light moving at speed near Immingham pursued by helicopters (2001)
– Witnesses report a large object close to Humberside airport's flight path. One witness, an experienced pilot, reports an object the size of a house with multi-coloured lights shining a beam down from 200 feet (1999)

Social phenomenon or threat?
An interesting coincidence between both the 'Scareship' and 'Flying Saucer' phenomena is that they both started in the USA some years before migrating to the UK. For instance the US 'Scareship' wave happened in the late 19th century (1896-97) where Zeppelin-like craft were seen in various parts of the USA. However Nigel Watson says that the catalyst for these sightings is fundamentally different to the UK scare.
“They were all sparked by the endeavour to create and fly aircraft for civilian and military uses. The US scare was largely reported as being caused by the testing of a secret aircraft by an amateur inventor. There were lots of stories of meetings with a grounded airship and discussions with the craft's inventor.”
Though the more famous Roswell incident and the sighting of pilot Kenneth Arnold in the late 1940's popularised the new UFO reports, Nick Pope is sceptical about when and where the modern 'Flying Saucer' phenomenon actually began.
“There may be something to this, but I don't think it's a straightforward as the UK copying the US. After all, when one includes 'foo fighters' and 'ghost rockets' (arguably just more labels for UFOs) one could argue that European reports came before the US 'flying saucer' sightings.”
Another interesting point to consider in relation to aerial phenomena over our region is due to the high concentration of Ministry of Defence bases in Lincolnshire, many of which belong to the Royal Air Force, it would be foolish to assume that the MoD would not be concerned about UFOs over the county. According to Pope the Ministry's official position was that the phenomena had "no defence significance”, however he continues:
“I and other colleagues felt that where there was strong evidence (reports from pilots, UFOs tracked on radar, etc) that an unidentified object was flying in UK airspace, this must automatically be of defence interest, not least because of the air safety issues and the potential that such activity was related to terrorism or espionage.”
Whether or not UFOs represent advanced Earthly technologies or extraterrestrial visitations one thing for sure is that the skies over Lincolnshire have presented some of the most interesting sightings over the past 100 years.

Nick Pope is a writer and former UFO investigator for the Ministry of Defence. Mr Pope is a world renowned expert of UFO phenomena. He can be contacted via his website

Nigel Watson is an author and journalist originally from Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire. Among his credits is the book 'The Origin of UFOs: Phantom Airships 1807 to 1917'. He can be contacted by email via


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