Bizarrely, a team of British intelligence officers were assigned to investigate weird sightings in the skies in World War I – becoming the precursor of UFO investigators both real and fictional. Most of us think of UFOs and mysterious sightings in the sky as a modern phenomenon – but ‘phantom airships’ became a huge panic in the early years of the Twentieth century, and regularly featured in newspapers.
By the time of World War I, a more scientific approach was needed. A predecessor to MI5 – Military Observation Department Five (MO5), under the control of Lieutenant Colonel Kell – was assigned the task of classifying sightings in the air.
Amid panic about enemy airships, it was a military necessity to weed out ‘phantom airships’ from real aircraft sightings. Nigel Watson, author of UFOs of the First World War says, ‘It can be regarded as the first ever official guide to studying UFO reports long before the CIA or any other organisation got with the subject when ‘flying saucer’ sightings were all the rage after WWII.
‘During WW! there were numerous reports of mysterious lights and objects moving about in the skies. These were studied by the Assistant Director of Military Aeronautics, a post held by Lieutenant Colonel W.S. Brancker; the department of Military Training; and by the Brancker and Kell can be regarded as the first Mulder and Scully who studied the flow of UFO-type reports that flowed into their offices.’
The reports sent to Brancker and Kell sound eerily like today’s UFO sightings – and came amid widespread panic not only about enemy airships but also more mysterious sightings. A 1914 telegram from the Chief Constable of Lancashire said, ‘Large red light seen at 8.45pm today passing over Runcorn Bridge Arches. Immediately afterwards, an explosion was heard in Widnes and Runcorn.
The guidelines set out by the war office helped officers of MO5 categorise sightings as of natural origin – or as something more mysterious. Various legends about extraterrestrials have circulated about World War I – of which the most astonishing (and implausible) is that German fighter ace the Red Baron shot down a UFO. Fellow pilots claimed, after the war, that Baron Manfred von Richtofen shot down a flying saucer type craft – from which two inhabitants fled.
Fellow German pilot Peter Waitzrick said that the fighters saw an aircraft like an upside down saucer, ‘We were terrified because we’d never seen anything like it before. The Baron immediately opened fire and the thing went down like a rock, shearing off tree limbs as it crashed into the woods.
‘There’s no doubt in my mind that the Baron shot down some kind of spacecraft from another planet and those little guys who ran off into the woods were space aliens of some kind.