The Rendlesham case is the most famous UFO incident ever to have occurred in Britain and ranks as one of the best worldwide.

Many believe it is far more significant than the alleged UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, because, unlike Roswell all the witnesses are still alive. Not only that but there are official documents which confirms the reality of a UFO encounter.

           I made a thorough investigation into the Rendlesham incident as part of the research I conducted for a TV documentary I co-directed called - Out of the Blue. This was aired on the SCI FI Channel in America in 2003. During this time I interviewed many of the military witnesses involved and some of the top researchers, principally Georgina Bruni, whose book ‘You Can’t Tell the People’ –was at the time the definitive investigation into the case and from which much of the information for this article is derived.




So what did happen during those four remarkable days over Christmas 1980? Did a UFO really land in a US Air Force base in England? And did the US and British governments really try to cover up the whole affair?



In 1980 the Cold War was still burning hot. The proceeding year had seen the invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union. Both the US and her NATO allies were in a state of heightened tension. During this period the British government led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had agreed to let the US increase its military presence in the UK. And unknown to most of the British public many of the big US Air Force bases contained stockpiles of nuclear weapons. One of these bases was the joint Royal Air Force /USAF air base at Woodbridge and Bentwaters located near the town of Ipswich in northeast England. Rendlesham Forest divided the two bases and it was here, in the late evening and early morning of December 26/27, that an extraordinary series of events began to unfold.





Although many military and civilian witnesses reported UFO activity over the twin bases during the days between December 25 and 28, including the base deputy commander Col. Charles Halt, it is the testimony of the three men who initially went into Rendlesham forest to investigate reports of strange lights, that proves to be the most dramatic. Dramatic because not only did one of these men claim to see a landed UFO, he actually claimed to have touched it. And there is even the more controversial possibility that he interacted with its occupants.

Staff Sergeant Jim Penniston, the on-duty flight chief for the Woodbridge base, was enjoying a midnight snack when he received a call from the security center telling him Airman First Class Cabansag was on his way to collect   him. He was then instructed to meet up with two of the base’s military police: Staff Sergeant Bud Stefens and Airman First Class John Burroughs. When they met, Stefens and Burroughs told him they had seen some strange lights over the forest and that there might be a problem. Thinking that the men may have seen a downed aircraft Penniston told Burroughs that they should go and investigate. Penniston was shocked when he heard Stefens insist that it couldn’t have been a crash because he had already seen the strange light actually land.

Stefans had been so shaken by what he had seen that he refused to join the patrol and investigate. Penniston accompanied by Cabansaq and Burroughs then jumped into a vehicle and drove to the forest. There they saw a bright light shining through the trees. Due to difficult terrain they abandoned their vehicle and proceeded on foot.  As they approached the light they began experiencing problems with their radios. (Electronic interference is commonly reported in the vicinity of UFOs.) Penniston then ordered Cabansag to stay back by the vehicle and act as a communications relay between them and the security control center.  As they walked deeper into the forest Penniston noted with anxiety that all the animals and birds appeared to be in a terrible frenzy. He also noted that radio communication with Cabansag , although still close by, had deteriorated. He ordered Burroughs to move back to the tree line and act as a relay. But Burroughs had now become so frightened he failed to acknowledge the order and resultantly all radio contact with the base was lost. The two men were now on their own.





When Penniston got to a distance of 50 meters he could make out a metallic type object, some kind of craft, but unlike any he had ever seen in his seven years in the air force. As he moved closer he discovered that the air seemed to be charged with static electricity causing his hair to stand on end. As he closed to within 20 meters of the object he noticed that the animals had scattered and the area was now completely quiet. As he got closer still he could see the object in more detail. He described seeing a shiny black, triangular shaped craft, three meters in width and two high. The surface was smooth almost glass like. He later said it was about the size of a tank.  White light was emitting from both the top and bottom of the craft. Red and blue lights flashed alternatively on either side.




Penniston then took out a camera and began photographing the object. He shot the entire roll and then moved closer so he could circle around the back of it. He was amazed to see no visible means of propulsion, nor was there any obvious signs of conventional manufacture: no seams or rivets. By now, and in complete awe of what this object might be, he courageously placed his hands on its surface, which he said felt warm despite the freezing night of an English winter. Sliding his hand over the smooth exterior he discovered a series of raised symbols etched onto its left hand side. The symbols, which he later drew, were about three inches high and covered an area of about three feet in diameter. He stated that he could see no occupants but sensed there was some sort of life present inside.





After about 45 minutes the light from the craft began to intensify. Both men backed away adopting what they described as – ‘a defensive position’.  The craft then silently lifted up and hovered about a meter off the ground. It them maneuvered very slowly and carefully through the trees before rising up to thirty meters where it hovered. Then in a blink of an eye it was gone.

He was absolutely certain it was under intelligent control.

“During the whole encounter”, Penniston states, “I noted what was I was seeing in my logbook, which I still have. In it I wrote - speed impossible. In that moment I knew this craft’s technology was far beyond what we could engineer. 




After returning to the base and reporting what they saw the men were debriefed and told to forget they had ever seen anything. Reasling immediately that officials would try to white wash the incident Penniston and Burroughs decided to return to the landing site shortly after they were debriefed. They located the area and found broken branches scattered everywhere. They also found three indentations in the ground where the UFO had been resting.

Knowing he would need some physical evidence of his encounter Penniston returned to the landing site the following day and made plaster casts of the indentations.





When members of British Military Intelligence later investigated the site they discovered radiation readings that were ten times higher than normal around these indentations. (This was revealed after the British Ministry of Defense (MOD) released previously classified documents about the case in 2001. This had been done after Admiral Lord Hill Norton, the former British Chief of Defense Staff, has repeatedly applied pressure on the government to do so.)




Penniston was so shaken by his encounter with the UFO that he, along with Burroughs, were granted a six-day leave.

Later he stated: “After that craft took off, I was in no doubt. I realized that it was 100% certain that we are part of a larger community beyond the confines of this planet.”

However this remarkable encounter was not the end of the Rendlesham incident. Another close encounter was to follow. This time it involved the base deputy commander.



Had it not been for Col. Halt and, specifically, the famous memorandum he wrote in January 1981, the public would never have found out about the Rendlesham incident. The files would have remained moldering in some government archive along with, no doubt, many other classified UFO events.





The Halt memorandum, in which the base deputy commander, describes not only Penniston’s UFO encounter, but also his own, was written at the request of the British Base Commander: Squadron Leader Donald Moreland. The memorandum was written to the MOD and was supposed to remain classified. However through a curious twist of fate it later surfaced after an American organization called Citizens Against UFO Secrecy (CAUS) obtained it using the Freedom of Information Act in 1983. The reason the memo is so important is it provides official confirmation that a UFO event did happen at Rendlesham Forest, despite official denials from both the USAF and the MOD.

Col. Halt was away from the base on Christmas day so he did not hear about the UFO landing in Rendlesham forest until December 26.  On being informed about the incident he summoned Airman First Class Cabansaq into his office and asked him to describe what had happened. The following day Halt was attending a party when an officer informed him “ The UFO is back.” Halt was then instructed to assemble a patrol to investigate the incident with the express aim of debunking the whole issue. The officers were worried the whole thing was getting out of hand.

With a team of men he entered the forest he discovered numerous personnel and vehicles already there. Men ran all over the place as both vehicles and lighting equipment were malfunctioning. He then took his patrol to the original landing site and shortly after this spotted a glowing red object moving through the forest. During much of the entire time Halt had activated a mini tape recorder so an audio record could be made. This tape was later released to the public. It makes for riveting listening. On it you can hear Halt and his men getting closer to the UFO. “ There is no doubt about it, there is some type of strange flashing red light ahead.” He states on the tape. Then his voice gets extremely excited as he says - “ It’s coming this way, it’s definitely coming this way. Pieces of it are shooting off. There is no doubt about it this is weird.” Halt described the object as circular, like a large eye winking at him. Later in the tape he states “ He’s heading towards us now. Now we are observing what appears to be a beam coming down to the ground. This is unreal.”







The group watched as another object came in at enormous speed and then stopped, hovered over them and then sent a laser like beam down to the ground only a few feet from their location. The UFO then moved over the weapons storage area and continued firing beams of light into the storage bunkers. Col. Halt, confined by security oaths, has refused to confirm whether this area contained nuclear weapons. But it is almost certain, given the front line function of the base at the time that it did.

(Additionally, given the documented interest of UFOs in nuclear installations, especially nuclear weapons, some researchers have speculated that this was an attempt to probe or even tamper with the nuclear weapons.)

The memorandum that Halt later wrote describes his encounter, the Penniston encounter of the previous day and a description of the three indentations and the fact that the area had been checked and found to be radioactive.

After the memorandum was obtained by UFO researchers, Halt was reluctantly propelled into the public domain and has been the focus of much media attention ever since. He later confided that he didn’t think the public was entirely ready to know all the facts about the case. He stated that if the public were to be made fully aware of what happened during the Rendlesham Incident, it would completely change the way people look at reality and the nature of the universe.

As a result of the Halt memorandum the British Ministry of Defense began their own investigation into the incident. This was confirmed when some of their secret files were released to Admiral, Lord Hill Norton in 2001. Interestingly the files also reveal the involvement of Lt. General Charles A. Gabriel, who was then the supreme commander of USAF in Europe. The files show that Gabriel arrived at the Woodbridge base shortly after the incident and was handed ‘taped evidence’. Georgina Bruni speculates that this evidence would most likely have been photographs of the landed UFO and possible radar recordings.

Why would the supreme commander of the US Air Force in Europe visit the Woodbridge base shortly after the UFO incident unless it was directly connected to the close encounter incident?





Naturally the last thing the military authorities wanted was for the story to enter the public domain. After the Halt memo was obtained by researchers this became impossible. A number of stories then appeared in the press.  Most notably in the News of the World, a British tabloid, which ran a huge banner headline screaming: UFO lands in Suffolk. And that’s official.

The MOD responded with the usual denials and claimed that the event posed ‘no defense significance’. Lord Hill Norton, a man who in the 1970s was at the top of the British defense establishment, has for years been vocal in attacking the MOD’s position.  He has stated that there are only two possibilities regarding Halt’s claims of an encounter. Either Halt and all the other witnesses were hallucinating or they actually saw what they claimed to have seen. In either case, since all the men were stationed on a base containing nuclear-armed aircraft, the situation has to be of extreme defense significance.  Norton has also later stated publically that he believes the evidence for the Rendlesham case points conclusively to an extraterrestrial intrusion. 

Despite the unearthing of the Halt memo the US military did everything it could to ensure the story remained secret. When Penniston tried to recover the photographs he took of the craft from the base photo lab he was told he couldn’t because the film was supposedly fogged and therefore useless. Penniston doubts this and believes his pictures were inevitably confiscated. Also one of the three plaster casts he made of the landing site disappeared whilst being shipped by the military. He managed to keep the other two. Long after the event when he had moved back to America he discovered a bug in his house. He also received threatening phone calls and discovered that his mail was frequently tampered with.



A far more sinister turn of events happened when Penniston was interviewed by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) shortly after his encounter. AFOSI is a branch of military intelligence tasked with security issues within the US Air Force. The AFOSI agents asked Penniston if they could inject him with the “truth drug” Sodium Pentothal in order to help extract information about his encounter. He reluctantly agreed on the condition that after his interrogation they would leave him alone. He has since stated that this experience disturbed him so much that he subsequently suffered from nightmares. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

In 1994 Penniston agreed to undergo hypnosis with a professional hypnotherapist as a way to deal with the trauma. The session was video taped and a transcript of the session ended up in the public domain. In this session Penniston explains that the two AFOSI agents were replaced with an American from the State Department and an English man from its British equivalent. They questioned him repeatedly about the structure of the craft and the details of the symbols he saw. They concluded that they knew exactly what he had seen and the only real issue was how to contain the story.

The most amazing and bizarre part of the regression deals with an alleged alien encounter he had with the occupants of the craft. Bruni has noted in her book that Penniston experienced 45 minutes of missing time during his encounter.  This is a common event, which people report when they claim to have had an alien abduction experience.

When the two men asked Penniston if there were any beings present, Penniston made reference to  ‘The Visitors’.   When questioned about the identity of the Visitors Penniston made the astonishing statement that they were time travelers from the future. These were not extraterrestrial visitors but were, he claimed, us from the future. He then went on to explain that the agenda of these time travelers was to collect genetic material. He stated that the Visitors had some kind of severe problem reproducing their species and would die out if they could not extract human genetic material. A striking similar scenario to the alleged agenda behind alien abduction.

This bizarre twist in the Rendlesham story could be interpreted in at least two different ways: Either Penniston did experience a period of missing time during which he had an interaction with the occupants of the craft as he claims. Or the AFOSI agents used the Sodium Pentothal and the technique know as narco-hypnosis to scramble his brain. This method is widely known to introduce false memories through suggestion. By implanting the alien contact story into Penniston’s subconscious he would later believe it was his own experience. When he later recounted the story he would inevitably damage the credibility of his original testimony.




Larry Warren also claims to have undergone this procedure. Warren is another of the chief Rendlesham witnesses and at the time of the incident was working as a security police officer.  He was the first person to come forward with a story about the UFO intrusion and has for years claimed to have witnessed not only a UFO landing at the base but also alien beings getting out of the craft.

Warren’s testimony is by far the most controversial and has lost most of its credibility because he has changed it so many times over the years. Penniston’s story however has always remained consistent.

Col. Halt explained to me that he thought much of Warren’s story was false. He believes Warren was most likely the victim of the brain washing techniques used by the AFOFI. By implanting false memories into Warren he would then unwittingly go around spreading disinformation and confusion. This would naturally discredit the testimony of all the other witnesses including Halt.

Many details remain unanswered in the Rendlesham incident. But the fundamental reality that for four days over Christmas 1980 UFOs flew over and landed outside a USAF base in Bentwaters and Woodbridge remain absolutely solid. Inevitably many skeptics have attacked these claims, but to date none have managed to present any theories that stand up to scrutiny. The most common skeptical theory claims that the sightings were the result of a near by lighthouse beacon, have been thoroughly discredited. Halt and Penniston are insulted that as trained military observers they would mistake objects flying in the sky for a lighthouse. And naturally a lighthouse beacon can’t leave radioactive ground indentations.

The evidence and the witness testimony all point to the fact that not only was the Rendlesham Incident Britain’s most famous UFO incident; it is also one of the best UFO cases ever reported in the history of this subject.


Tim Coleman has been working as a professional journalist for over thirty years. He has been published in a huge range of magazines and newspapers around the world including: The Guardian, The Independent, FHM Magazine, The Face, Focus, Sky, Skin and Ink, Wienner, Tatowier (Germany) Enigmas (Spain), UFO Magazine (UK and US) X-Factor, Encounters, Kindred Spirit and many more.
"As well as earning a living from being a freelance journalist, I have always found journalism to be the perfect medium to explore subjects that I'm passionate about. This not only allows me to enter deeply into the subject through the research, but it also provides me the honor of meeting key players in that field ."
Tim Coleman
Here is a small selection of my work.