The UFO Iconoclast(s)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

UFO or Phantom Helicopter? by Nick Redfern

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According to a batch of files that the British National Archive declassified a number of years ago, the well-known writer Dame Rebecca West, MBE, was inadvertently plunged into an equally strange puzzle. Incredibly, she asserted, some sort of unusual aerial object, had landed in the grounds of her home – Ibstone House.

For its part, the files reveal, the Ministry of Defense was intent on playing down the case and suggested that West had simply misidentified a helicopter seen under poor conditions. Whatever the truth of the matter, West’s odd experience became the subject of a fifteen-page file that attracted the attention of the elite of the MoD’s Defense Intelligence Staff.

Born in 1892, Rebecca West (the adopted name of Cecily Isabel Fairfield) was the daughter of Charles Fairfield, who was renowned in London society for his spirited and witty Defense of “extreme individualism” in debates with the likes of George Bernard Shaw. While West was still a child, Fairfield re-located his family to Edinburgh where he died; leaving his widow and four daughters in circumstances bordering on poverty.

West (who adopted the name Rebecca at the age of nineteen after Ibsen’s heroine in Rosmersholm) remained in Edinburgh and continued her education there, trained briefly for the stage in London, before becoming a noted feminist and journalist – and taking much of her inspiration from the Pankhursts. As her career blossomed, West wrote for The Freewoman, The Clarion and The New Freewoman; and many of her pugnacious writings from that time were collated and re-printed as The Young Rebecca in 1932.

Her first novel, The Return of the Soldier, was published in 1918 and was followed by The Judge, The Strange Necessity, Harriet June, The Thinking Reed; and after an extended period, The Fountain Overflows and The Birds Fall Down. In the meantime, in 1930 West married one Henry Maxwell Andrews, a banker, who was to accompany her on the journey that ultimately led to the publication of her two-volume study of the Yugoslav nation, The Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

West was also present at the Nuremburg trials and her 1949 book, The Meaning of Treason, largely grew out of articles commissioned by the New Yorker. In 1965, only one year before her curious UFO encounter occurred, The Meaning of Treason was updated with added accounts of what were then more recent scandals (including those of John Vassall, a spy in the Admiralty sentenced to eighteen years imprisonment, and Stephen Ward, a player in the Profumo case). But how did Dame Rebecca West become embroiled in the UFO controversy? As the now-aged and fading documentation at the Public Record Office reveals, it was 2.45 p.m. on 7 January 1966 and West was out walking in the grounds of her home when…

“As I was going down the steep hill to the farm buildings I noticed a man walking on my property at some distance to the right of the path I was following,” she wrote to the MoD. “Presently, he reached a point when the wood stopped and there is a hedge which runs down to the valley along a sharp ridge. There is a gap in the hedge and the man stopped just past this and turned around, facing in the reverse direction, and stood still.”

Expressing concern about “what he was going to do,” West watched in amazement as what she described as “an aerial construction” appeared out of nowhere. “One moment it was not there, the next it was,” Rebecca West explained. “It seemed to come down quite rapidly, on the other side of the hedge from the man, but very close to it.” And what, precisely, was it that Dame Rebecca West saw? Her description was curious, to say the least.

Stressing to the MoD that the object was “strangely shaped,” she stated: “It consisted of something like a metal band, grey-blue in colour, flattened at one point so as to seem almost leaf-like, crossed with a sort of herringbone system of metal strips.” She elaborated further: “There was also somehow attached to these an odd object like a bag with an opening that had points, made of yellowish material. As I looked the whole thing collapsed toward the ground.

“I saw it crumpling downwards, but crumpling is not quite the word. The metal band seemed to cut backwards and disappear while the curious bag looked as if someone were squeezing the air out of the lower portion of it, so that all the points stood up, and then fell back. Comparing the height of the object with the height of the man, I should put it as something [between] fifteen and twenty.”

Also playing on West’s mind was the identity of the mystery man. Stressing that his behavior was “very odd,” she continued that “he seemed to be watching the thing come down, and the minute it was down, he turned round and followed the hedge track down to the valley. Once or twice he looked to his left as if he were scrutinising the valley, and he did not seem to see me. But at the bottom of the track he stopped again and looked all round the slope on which I was standing, and this time he seemed to see me. We stood and looked at each other for quite a long time, and I had an uncomfortable feeling and went home.”

The key question centred on the identity of the strange object. In her letter to the Ministry of Defense, West wrote that a farm labourer had informed her that he had seen a helicopter flying in the vicinity earlier on that same day. West, meanwhile, ventured the possibility that it was “some gadget sent out by the Meteorological Office.”

Rebecca West signed off: “I feel most apologetic for burdening you with such an improbable story. But I did not like to report it to the local police, as I think you will agree that an elderly woman who went to the local police with a story of having seen the equivalent of a flying saucer would be adding considerably to the difficulties of her life.”

On arrival at the MoD, West’s letter (and accompanying drawing) was forwarded to a particular office known to have been involved in the collation of UFO data in the 1960s and referred to as s4f (Air). As the records show, however, one L.W. Akhurst of that office then dispatched all of the relevant data to a Flight Lieutenant Mercer of the Defense Intelligence Staff.

For his part, Mercer was inclined to accept that, “Dame Rebecca West saw a helicopter, possibly of the Bell 47 or similar type, which in conditions of poor visibility appeared to have some unusual characteristics.”

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Needless to say, she was far from convinced by the MoD’s explanation and fired a letter back to Ackhurst. “To have appeared where I saw it a helicopter would have had to fly twenty or thirty yards with its lower half deeply embedded in the earth.”

She also maintained that: “There was at this time complete silence,” and that “visibility seemed to me not poor at all, for I spotted several birds at a considerable distance. I do not expect an answer to this letter.”

She concluded: “I reported the incident partly because I feared the object might be a parachute or some such construction which was being used to drop something or somebody for criminal purposes, and partly because the construction I saw or thought I saw puzzled me, as I could not conceive how it could be got into the air, could stay in the air, or be brought down out of the air.”

Akhurst’s response was short and to the point. “No further evidence has become available concerning this particular sighting, so there is nothing further I can add.” The case was closed. For its part, the Ministry of Defense seemed satisfied with the explanation that the object was simply a helicopter. However, West’s letters clearly demonstrate that not only had she summarily dismissed the notion that the object was a helicopter (“I have seen many in my time, and I can’t imagine how I could have seen a helicopter from any angle which would have made it present such an appearance,” she stated), she had also given much consideration to the idea that the object was some form of man-made gadget. Yet, she was equally well aware of the fact that her report seemed to fall squarely into the Flying Saucer category too. And there was also the glaring observation on her part that the object had been flying in total silence.

Dame Rebecca West continued to write with vigour almost until the time of her death at the age of ninety in 1983, and her contribution to British literature is more than well recognised. It seems that more than thirty years on, however, this particularly curious aspect of her notable life will remain forever unresolved.

References: National Archive files: AIR 2/17983 and AIR 2/17984.