WORLD War One, London: a German airship is pounding the capital with bombs. Several aircraft are scrambled to attack the enemy raider. But as well as the giant Zeppelin a mysterious object is seen in the sky by the British pilots.
“One of them described it as looking like a railway carriage with the blinds down,” says Nigel Watson, who has investigated the century-old sighting.
“One pilot took some shots with his revolver but the object flew away out of range.”
The strange incident is one of the more extraordinary encounters featured in the Plympton author’s latest book, UFOs Of The First World War. There are many more: Nigel’s book will cause a rethink for anybody who reckons UFOs – unidentified flying objects – only arrived after World War Two departed in 1945.
True, the term ‘flying saucer’ was coined in 1947 (after a description of an unexplained object that flew ‘like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water’). But UFOs have been seen for centuries and descriptions of them have evolved over time.
“It’s called ‘cultural tracking’,” says Nigel. “People tend to see things in the sky that are a bit more advanced than the current technology but still within the bounds of credibility and the possibilities of that time.
“What we see is conditioned by the media and culture.”
Hence during the 1914-18 war people saw, and explained what they saw as, objects that fitted the era of airships and biplanes. Nigel, 60, is an expert in the history of UFOs and the latest book is his fourth on the subject. His research came from War Office files held by the Public Records Office – police passed sightings to the government department charged with conducting the British effort during the conflict – and from newspapers (which were heavily censored from 1915 on).
“Military intelligence officers investigated the sightings,” says Nigel. “Often they were found, after a few phone calls, to be misidentifications. Some were not explained.
“There were a lot of UFO sightings in the Lake District. Troops were sent to search for an enemy aircraft base in Scotland.
“Nothing was found but a reward of £100 (the equivalent of a year’s wage for some) was offered to anybody who did.”
The Ashburton area was another hotspot for sightings. Lieutenant Colonel W P Drury, a military intelligence officer based in Plymouth, was sent to investigate a series reports of strange, floating lights in the sky in June and July, 1915. The officer witnessed the light once himself and noted that other sightings were on a line on the map that passed though Buckfast Abbey.
“Some German prisoners were being held there,” says Nigel.
“He thought that the light might be up to them, to signal (to the enemy) but there were not a lot of targets on Dartmoor.”
Nothing he found has convinced Nigel of the presence of an alien life in connection with the sightings. He remains an ‘optimistic sceptic’, he says.