The 1950s were a tense period in European history. Across the continent, entire countries were used as proxies in the great tactical stand-off developing between Russia and the US. Against this backdrop, the advent of the nuclear age had awoken a new fear of technology in the skies and a flood of reports from the USA suggested that something was up there. Whether it was terrestrial or not, it posed significant questions to scientists and the military alike.
One of England's roles in the proxy war was to play host to large elements of US air power - a forward base for aerial attack should the USSR threaten Europe. Little wonder that radar operators at the time were trained to respond to the merest hint of an unidentified threat. It was just such a perceived threat that gave rise to stories of a night-time pursuit of alien craft in the sky over the sleeping fields of Suffolk and Norfolk.
The night of the 13th August was a largely clear, dry night and observers noticed an unusually high number of shooting stars related to the annual Perseid meteor shower.
According to the 'classic' version of the story, radar operators at Bentwaters RAF base first tracked an object travelling toward the base at well over a thousand miles an hour. At the same time, another object was tracked with a radar footprint several times that of a B36 and a further target heading North East.
A T33 training aircraft was direct to investigate the object, but could see no visible trace of them. At five to eleven that night, another huge target - moving at between 2 and 4000 mile an hour approached the base, vanished from the screen while overhead and then reappeared on the other side of the base. At the same time, a bright white light was reported from the ground, while a C47 overhead reported the same white light from overhead.
Ground observers within the base also reported several other luminous objects over the base, which they reported as changing course extremely sharply in flight before eventually dwindling from view.
The final stage of the events of that night occurred at nearby Lakenheath air base. A radar watch superviser there - a Technical Sgt. Perkins - also observed an anomalous radar return and scrambled two Venom jet fighters to intercept the source.
What really happened?
The following events have been the source of much confusion. According to Perkins, who reported the events to the Condon Committee, a cat-and-mouse game was played between the Venoms and at least two objects, with the pilots reporting that objects they had been following had instantaneously vanished and reappeared in pursuit of their planes. His report was forwarded to various official US UFO investigations at the time and became the basis of the story as it is most commonly told.
However, subsequent investigations and reports have served to muddy the waters of the supposed aerial pursuit and what transpired that night.
The pilots that were scrambled were located and interviewed during the 1990s by British UFO researchers. The story they told was of 'unimpressive' radar returns which suggested to them a stationary object, which they assumed to have been either a marooned weather balloon or a spurious return caused by atmospheric conditions. They also asserted that no visual contact was made with any object.
To their mind, the events of that night were unremarkable and far removed from the exciting 'chase' reported by Perkins.
It also emerged during these investigations that Venoms were scrambled not once, but twice during the evening - first around midnight and then again between 2 and 3 in the morning. Confusingly, the recollections of the pilots and radar operators were at odds as to which crew had been scrambled at which time.
The official USAF investigation carried out as part of Project Blue Book concluded that the incident was:
"...the most puzzling and unusual case in the radar-visual files. The apparently rational, intelligent behavior of the UFO suggests a mechanical device of unknown origin as the most probable explanation of this sighting"
This conclusion appears to have been coloured by the initial, highly-coloured reports by Perkins, which were (to be fair) largely backed up by a Telex sent from the base commander some days after the incident.
Later researchers, with access to more of the eye-witnesses have, as we have seen, uncovered a far more prosaic series of events. At this distance and with the problems associated with distant memories and lost official paperwork, it is likely that we will never know for sure what transpired that night in the skies over Suffolk.
Short clip from a documentary made in the 1990s by veteran British UFOlogist Jenny Randles. In it, she interviews two of the pilots who were "scrambled" to intercept the objects seen during the Lakenheath-Bentwaters incident.