Attack of the flying saucers! How six 'UFOs' sparked a nationwide panic when they landed in Britain in 1967

By Michael Hanlon

The alien invaders arrived without fanfare. No gigantic spacecraft casting mile-wide shadows over our great cities. No death rays and no obvious threats to annihilate humankind.
And for their beachhead on planet Earth, these unassuming extraterrestrials chose not Central Park in New York City, nor the lawns of the White House in Washington DC. Instead, this was to be a very British Close Encounter.
After voyaging for tens of light years across interstellar space, the aliens chose to make landfall on the green of a golf course near Bromley, in South-east London, some fields scattered across southern England and a hill in Somerset.
It was a small armada of six flying saucers that arrived in Britain on September 4, 1967. They were not gargantuan, circular craft constructed from exotic alloys, but shiny plastic pods that looked like gigantic fried eggs, and they were each light enough to be manhandled by two burly men.
Forty-three years later, it seems utterly extraordinary that anyone took this invasion seriously. But files released by the National Archives this week confirm just how concerned was the Government of the day about the threat from space.
For this was Britain’s most successful UFO hoax — and a new book reveals in unprecedented detail how it duped the highest echelons of Whitehall.
The hoax caused panic among intelligence agents, senior police officers and top-flight mandarins. And it put Britain on alert for a full-scale interstellar invasion.
‘It was the most effective and elaborate flying saucer hoax ever perpetrated in the world,’ says the book’s author John Keeling. ‘And the hoaxers did it all for £30.’
The hoax exposed the fact that at the height of the Cold War, the British authorities had no idea how to respond neither to an alien invasion nor to an attack by a human foe using unconventional weapons.
In the late Sixties, Britain was in the grip of UFO fever. Every week, sightings were reported from across the land — strange lights, saucers, flying cigar-shaped objects. This was a time of tension both in the Cold War and the Space Race, and paranoia about new technologies and innovations was at its height.
Shows like Dr Who back in the 1960s seemed to encourage alien sightings
It was also an age when extraterrestrials figured strongly in the TV schedules of the time, from Dr Who to the Quatermass series, a factor which is known to have increased reported alien sightings (we saw another peak in the Nineties, corresponding with the transmission of The X-Files).
There were 360 British ‘sightings’ that year of 1967, nearly one a day, and the media was taking the subject of extraterrestrials seriously. This made it just about the perfect time for a handful of clever, mischievous trainee engineers from the MoD’s Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in Hampshire to perpetrate one of the most audacious pranks in student history.
The ringleaders were Christopher Southall and Roger Palmer, both aged just 21. The prank was conceived with the best of intentions — to raise money for charity as part of the college’s Rag Week.
In this it succeeded admirably. But the team had a second, darker motive; they wanted to see how the authorities would react if there was an alien invasion, and to find out just how prepared Britain was.
It looked like mashed human brain and stank to high heaven
The Farnborough Rag committee agreed to the plan in January 1967. But it would not be until September that the invasion would be launched. The idea was to try to make the ‘spacecraft’ enigmatic and sinister rather than cartoonish UFOs.
The students constructed six oval flattened objects, 54 in long, 30 in wide and 20 in deep, moulded from fibreglass and laced with artist’s graphite to give them an other-worldly sheen. They looked more organic than mechanical, and indeed the team always referred to them as ‘eggs’ rather than flying saucers.
They decided that they would have to have something ‘alien’ inside them before they were sealed up. So they concocted disgusting jelly-like goo made from bread dough boiled at a high temperature. It looked like mashed human brain and stank to high heaven. Anyone who tried to break open one of the UFOs was going to be in for a nasty — albeit harmless — surprise.
Also inside each saucer was placed a small electronic loudspeaker, programmed to emit an unearthly wailing noise if the UFO was disturbed.
Each saucer weighed about a hundredweight and just about fitted in the back of a car. The team had to decide where to ‘plant’ them. They drew a line along the 51.5-degree parallel, which runs from Kent to Somerset, and plotted six more-or-less equidistant points.
Britain was in the grip of UFO fever in the late Sixties, with sightings reported every week of a UFO. And so, in the early hours of September 4, they set out, in the dead of night in two-man teams. This was a time when few people drove and the students were wary of attracting police attention. The saucers were hidden in the backs of the cars by blankets, fishing gear and even the casing for a double bass.
Saucer No 1 was placed on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames Estuary, near a new housing development. At 2.30am the alarm inside the saucer began to wail as it was placed in position.
The pranksters fled the scene. Coincidentally, that night there were reported UFO sightings in nearby Rochester. But it was in Bromley, an hour’s drive away, that the fake spacecraft had the biggest impact — thanks to a weird cosmic coincidence.
A strange noise coming from the night sky disturbed the sleep of a woman called Cynthia Tooth. She went to her bedroom window and saw a strange light — a UFO, she claimed — and ‘it went down behind some trees’. She alerted the local paper the next day, and her report played right into the hands of the hoaxers.
As southern England woke up, reports filtered through that the country was under attack
It wasn’t until the morning that the ‘egg’ left by the hoaxers on the Bromley golf course was discovered — by a caddy named Harry Huxley, who was out early searching for lost balls.
What ensued was straight out of an Ealing Comedy.
Huxley decided to carry on looking for the golf balls before reporting his find.
But later that morning a policemen called Gordon Hampton — ‘Flash’ to his friends and colleagues — saw Huxley while patrolling the lane around the course in his panda car. Huxley told him of his encounter with the ‘egg’.
As PC Hampton stepped out of his car, he heard an eerie, piercing wail coming from the UFO. He radioed the station, convinced this was something extraterrestrial, but was wary of using the words ‘spaceship’ or ‘UFO’ over the airwaves — this was a time when police radios were unencrypted and routinely eavesdropped by radio hams.
‘I’ve found an unusual object,’ he told his boss, who asked him to describe it.
Eventually PC Hampton admitted he had found a flying saucer and a posse was despatched from Bromley station to see if he was drunk or telling the truth.
The local police’s decision to take the saucer through Bromley’s streets back to the station later earned them a serious reprimand from senior Scotland Yard officers, who were concerned that they might contaminate the town.
Once the UFO was in custody, the officer in charge of the operation, a Superintendent Sheppard, phoned someone at Scotland Yard called the ‘back hall inspector’. His job was to field unusual requests from across the nation’s police forces, and contact relevant government departments. In turn, the report landed on a desk at the MoD, just after 9am.
As southern England woke up, reports filtered through that the country was under attack. In Clevedon, Somerset, a paperboy found a flying saucer on Dial Hill. This boy went rushing into his shop and told his boss. Everyone burst out laughing. Shortly after, at a farm in Welford in Berkshire, a postmistress spotted one of the ‘eggs’ in a field.
TV show The X-Files gave people yet more food for thought in the Nineties with regards to alien lifeforms
Now, three UFOs had been found. At 8am, another ‘egg’ was discovered, this time in Winkfield in Berkshire. A man saw the object in his garden and went out to have a look. This particular UFO malfunctioned — its bleeper never went off.
Across the road was a radar station used by NASA to track satellites and the new Gemini manned spacecraft. An engineer at the station came over to have a look and was concerned. The final two saucers — in Chippenham and on the Isle of Sheppey — were not discovered until 8am and noon respectively.
This was an era before mobile phones, before email, indeed before any sort of easy communication at all. Back then they had only pens and telephones. It is perhaps surprising just how rapid the official response was, even though it quickly descended into farce.
Once the MoD was involved, intelligence staff and a senior unnamed flight lieutenant — who later became an adviser to the Thatcher government on missile security — took charge.
‘I asked him what he thought,’ says Keeling, who spoke to him for his book on condition of anonymity. ‘He said: “Well, s**t, what do we do now?” ’
The first thoughts in Whitehall were not, in fact, of aliens, but of Soviet weaponry. Could the Russians have sent a fleet of robots, perhaps primed with nuclear warheads or chemical weapons, as the first wave of an invasion of the West? The MoD asked Britain’s radar stations if they had spotted anything unusual the night before, but there was nothing.
The police and government bodies looked ridiculous. They were furious and there were threats of prosecution
Britain’s top intelligence officers and policemen were mobilised and decided to keep the saucers secret, but news had already broken.
A senior detective drove down to Bromley only to find the police station mobbed with reporters and two TV crews filming the policemen, all happily posing with what might be a Soviet weapon of mass-destruction or an alien spacecraft. The detective exploded with rage.
The detective was followed to Bromley by intelligence agents in a big black car from Whitehall. Geiger counters found the saucer was not radioactive.
By this time, the police had tried drilling into the saucer — only to discover the rotting, smelly dough within. For a while it looked as if Bromley would have to be put into quarantine. A couple of hours later, a Ministry of Defence helicopter was rushed to the Isle of Sheppey egg.
Meanwhile, one of the other saucers, the silent one in Winkfield, was taken down to the police station and put in the lost property office.
The saucers were prodded, drilled, manhandled and in several cases punctured. The Chippenham one was blown up in a controlled explosion by bomb-disposal experts. If they had contained anthrax or smallpox or some deadly Soviet material, never mind alien technology, it would have been a catastrophe.
In the end, the hoaxers’ cover was blown — not by a top detective or MI5, but by a newspaper reporter who knew that the Farnborough students had form. The year before, they had built a convincing ‘robot’ for rag week which had appeared in all the media.
Towards the end of that extraordinary day, the hoaxers held a press conference, at which they admitted their guilt and stated: ‘We believe that flying saucers could land one day, so we landed our own to give the authorities some practice.’
The police and government bodies looked ridiculous. They were furious and there were threats of prosecution. In the end, wiser counsel prevailed, perhaps because the Establishment realised that dragging the whole episode through the courts would only throw more egg on official faces.
As a result of all the publicity, the students raised about £2,000 for charity — they received offers from all over the world for the surviving saucers. One was put on display in a West End restaurant. The Isle of Sheppey saucer was taken by the MoD helicopter crew. And the silent one in the police lost property office just disappeared.