Around in Circles
Exactly who, or what, is responsible for peppering Britain's landscape with the now familiar crop circles and the fantastically elaborate "pictogram" designs has been hotly debated for years. Indeed, worldwide interest in the subject is so intense that it even became a key aspect of the summer 2002 blockbuster movie starring Mel Gibson, Signs.
Official interest in these mysterious "circles" began early on. According to the Wall Street Journal of August 28, 1989, "British agriculture and defense officials want to know more about the mysterious crop circles which have appeared across the countryside...so does Queen Elizabeth, who is said to have sharply questioned Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher about the circles recently. While those talks are kept secret, a Buckingham Palace spokesman says the Queen took a hurriedly published book about the circles to her summer palace in Scotland this month."
Numerous theories have been advanced to try to explain the phenomenal number of designs that have appeared throughout the country (and now, the world) since the 1980s, but opinions remain sharply divided. For the "believers," crop circles are the work of UFOs, some form of vaguely defined "earth energy," or some other inexplicable phenomenon. For many, however, the human factor is overriding. Indeed, good evidence shows that many of the pictograms are the work of human beings.
In the latter part of 2000, for instance, a Welshman named Matthew Williams hit the headlines when he was arrested for causing criminal damage in a field in Wiltshire, England. Williams had created under cover of darkness a highly elaborate pictogram of the type that many crop-circle researchers believed -- and continue to believe -- could only be made by a currently unexplained medium. Little wonder, then, that the matter remains unresolved to everyone's satisfaction.
But what of the possibility that the circles -- whatever their origin -- have attracted the attention of officialdom, as the Wall Street Journal suggested was the case in 1989? One man who claims to have such knowledge is crop-circle researcher George Wingfield. Eton-educated and previously employed at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Wingfield claims that in September 1990 the British government called a secret ministerial briefing to debate the circles. According to Wingfield's sources, the meeting was supposedly convened to try to determine the nature of the circles, lest the British government be placed in the potentially embarrassing position of having to admit its ignorance of the phenomenon.
A similar but more personal experience comes from a Royal Air Force medic, Jonathan Turner, who was stationed at RAF Lyneham, Wiltshire, in 1991. He recalls that on July 15 of that year, a crop circle was discovered on nearby Hackpen Hill. Shortly afterward, examples of the more elaborate pictograms began appearing too. His interest piqued, Turner visited the area on an off-duty day and took some photographs of the various patterns and formations that had appeared. As he soon learned, however, Turner was not alone.
Parked near a run-down farm building was a car: a Royal Air Force Police car. Turner subsequently had a brief conversation with the police officer and questioned him about his presence. This provoked a cryptic response from the RAF policeman, who admitted that he was "monitoring the activity on the downs regarding the crop circles."
And the stories continue of official interest, in one form or another. The film director John McNeish claims that he received an order from Buckingham Palace for a copy of his book Crop Circle Apocalypse.
But to what extent can such tales of official interest in crop circles be validated? Do governmental, military, and intelligence files exist on this topic? The answer is yes -- at least, to an extent.
The earliest documented example of official interest in unusual crop formations dates not, as might be expected, from the 1980s or 1990s, but from the 1940s and the battle-scarred landscape of wartime Britain. This example implicates one of Britain's most secretive intelligence agencies, MI5, in the mystery.
In March 1909, the British government instructed its Committee of Imperial Defense to consider the dangers posed to British naval ports by German espionage agents. On October 1 of that year, Captain Vernon Kell of the South Staffordshire Regiment and Captain Mansfield Cumming of the Royal Navy jointly established the Secret Service Bureau. To fulfill the Admiralty's requirement for information about Germany's new navy, Kell and Cumming divided their work; Kell became responsible for counterespionage within the British Isles, while Cumming coordinated the collection and analysis of overseas intelligence data.
Between March 1909 and the outbreak of the First World War, more than thirty spies were identified and arrested by the Secret Service Bureau. At the time the bureau had a staff of only ten, but it was rapidly mobilized as a branch of the War Office and in January 1916 became part of the new Directorate of Military Intelligence and was known thereafter as MI5.
In early 1941, Sir David Petrie was appointed the first director general of the Security Service and was given substantial resources to rebuild the organization. As a result MI5 became one of the most efficient agencies of the war. After the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, it was learned that all of the Nazi agents targeted against Britain had been identified, and in some cases recruited as double agents, by MI5 -- something that contributed to the success of the Allied landing in Normandy on D day on June 6, 1944. But what, you may ask, does this have to do with the crop-circle mystery?
In 2001 a number of files pertaining to the wartime activities of MI5 were declassified and made available for inspection at the Public Record Office, Kew. One dealt with MI5 investigations of "markings on the ground," "suspicious pieces of paper and messages," "marked maps," and "markings on telegraph poles." According to the report:
The early days of 1940 and 1941 produced an avalanche of reports about the spys [sic] and fifth columnists who many people thought were roaming the land unhindered. Each village boasted of "enemy agents" in their midst, and it is only by recapturing the atmosphere of those days that one can see the matter in its proper perspective. Everyone had heard of the activities of fifth columnists on the continent and of the alarmingly successful part they had played in the overthrow of France and Belgium. It was therefore natural with everyone tense for the threatened invasion that so many reports came in. Each had to be investigated, even if only to put the minds of the public and the services at rest.
The report outlines the nature of its content:
This account is not concerned with the activities of fifth columnists such as sabotage, capturing airfields and key points, and harassing the defending army, but in the methods used in communicating to each other and to the enemy. Reports from Poland, Holland, France and Belgium showed that they used ground markings for the guidance of bombers and paratroops (and of lights by night). Such ground markings might be the cutting of cornfields into guiding marks for aircraft, painting of roofs and the inside of chimneys white, setting haystacks on fire, and laying out strips of white linen in pre-arranged patterns. For guiding and giving information to advancing troops they would conceal messages behind advertisement hoardings and leave markings on walls and telegraph poles.
For the most part, the unusual markings on telegraph poles, roofs, and chimneys were dismissed as having perfectly innocent explanations and indicates how rumor and misperception can run wildly out of control at times of hostility and high stress. But what of the "ground markings" in cornfields?
From interviews conducted with personnel who had taken part in the hostilities in Poland, MI5 had determined that one of the ways that Nazi spies were communicating with German Luftwaffe pilots was by "beating out signs," twenty meters in diameter, "on harrowed fields or mowing such signs on meadows or cornfields." Crop circles, in other words!
In a section of the report titled "Examples of Ground Markings Investigated," a still-anonymous MI5 employee wrote:
1. Field at Little Mill, Monmouthshire.
In May 1941 a report was made that an unusual mark was visible amongst the growing corn. Near one of the gates was a mark in the form of the letter "G," some 33 yards long. This mark had been made by sowing barley transversely through the grain. Air photographs were taken and it was seen that the tail of the marking pointed towards the Ordnance factory at Glascoed. The farmer, a man of good character, was interviewed, and admitted that he had sown the field himself. He explained that he had sold the field in April. Shortly after, having a drilling machine nearby which had a small quantity of barley seed in it, and wishing to empty it as he had to return it to the farmer from whom he had borrowed it that night, he turned his team of horses into the grain field and drilled it into the ground thickly to get rid of it. He did this because it is extremely difficult to remove the grain in the machine by hand, and to sow it was the quickest way of getting rid of it. He agreed to plough up this part of the field. As a satisfactory explanation had been reached, the case was carried no further.
2. Field, north of Newquay, Cornwall.
Aircraft noticed, in May 1940, strange marking in this field and it was photographed. Enquiries were made and it was found that the lines were formed by heaps of lime used for agricultural purposes. The farmer concerned was above reproach and removed the lime heaps.
3. Field, near Staplehurst, Kent.
In October 1943, aircraft saw a faint white circle on the ground with the word MARDEN inscribed in it. Enquiries were made, and it was discovered that before the war the field was used as an emergency landing ground by Imperial Airways; the mark was made by them, and they paid a small yearly rent to the farmer. At the beginning of the war the mark was obliterated in some way, but this had worn thin. Steps were taken to obliterate it again.
So these examples of unusual wartime formations found in cornfields were determined not be related to the activities of the Nazis and instead had wholly down-to-earth explanations. But this intriguing aspect of MI5's wartime activities is notable for one key reason: it demonstrates that official bodies within Britain have investigated unusual crop formations to determine if they are in any way representative of a threat to the British Isles.
In the postwar period, the next example we have of official involvement in crop-circle-like phenomena dates from early 1964. On March 23 of that year, the Reverend T. E. T. Burbury of Clifton Rectory, Penrith, England, wrote to the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, which in turn forwarded his letter to the British Air Ministry via the Meteorological Office at Bracknell, about a crop-circle-forming blue light he had seen.
Does an apparent column of blue light about eight feet in diameter and about fifteen feet high which disperses and leaves a mark of very slightly disturbed earth, the same diameter, mean anything to you?
I examined the ground which is about one hundred yards from the nearest building and there are no pylons near. There was no sign of burning, either by sight or smell; the grass growing between the exposed ground appeared quite normal. There were no signs of bird tracks or droppings; the ground simply appeared to have been lightly raked over in almost perfect circle.
In this case, the Air Ministry seemed less than impressed with the report and suggested in an internal memorandum that the encounter probably had more to do with the condition of the liver of the witness than it did with anything else.
The key witness in this 1964 encounter was eventually tracked down by the crop-circle investigator Paul Fuller. Robert Ellis informed Fuller that at approximately 9:30 P.M. on the night in question the family's dog began to howl in the vicinity of an outbuilding where it slept at night. Thinking that some stock might have broken loose, Ellis went to check and noticed that the tops of two nearby apple trees were lit up by a blue light. He told Fuller:
"Approximately one hundred yards from where I stood was a vivid 'electric blue' light. Its shape was elliptical. It stayed in a horizontal position, remaining motionless and making no audible sound. I could see no detail within the light; in fact I had to shade my eyes with my hand, the light was so intense. I was quite frightened -- being alone -- and quickly went indoors. By that time I had calmed down and opened the curtains and shutters of the front window to look out again in that direction, all was in darkness."
According to Ellis, an inspection of the area the following morning revealed a circular depression as described by Burbury. "In some places the disturbance was two inches deep as if the area had been vigorously raked. The roots of the grass were damaged and the circle remained visible well into May of that year."
The lack of official interest in this 1964 case is in direct contrast to the concern shown over the wartime 1940s cases. Would MI5 be interested in the crop-circle phenomenon since the 1980s? We don't know. But we have found one aspect of the current phenomenon very interesting.
Most of the crop circles in the British Isles have been found in the county of Wiltshire, which is also home to Porton Down, the British government's Chemical and Biological Defense Establishment; Salisbury Plain, an area used for military training purposes; Boscombe Down, from where new and experimental aircraft are flown; and RAF Rudloe Manor, a secretive military establishment that until 1998 was home to an elite body of the Royal Air Force known as the Provost and Security Services.
Could the crop circles be coded messages left for terrorist or subversive groups intent on disrupting activities at Porton Down, Boscombe Down, Rudloe Manor, and Salisbury Plain? Or could the phenomenon be produced by the British military itself?
Let us now turn our attention to the United States. A report titled "Summary of Circumstances: Investigation of Possible Unidentified Flying Object -- Arlington, Virginia, 1-2 September 1952" was found at the National Archives, Maryland, in the now declassified UFO-related investigative files of the U.S. Air Force's Office of Special Investigations. It is of interest and relevance because it deals with the discovery and investigation of an "an unusual circle."
1. At 1600 hours on 3 Sep 52, the Directorate of Intelligence, HQ USAF received a telephone call from Mr. Storm, SE, Washington, that an unusual circle was found marked on the lawn of his father, Mr. Storm, on the morning of 2 Sep 52 and that he believed it might bear some relation to the USAF investigation of unidentified flying objects.
2. Major Fournet, of the D/I, called on the elder Mr. Storm at his residence, Arlington, Va., during the evening of 3 Sep 52.
3. The following was found on Mr. Storm's rear lawn:
a. A circle 18 feet in diameter and nearly perfectly formed was marked on the lawn by a deposit of some unknown gray substance which was adhering to the grass in clusters of fine globules.
b. The band of the circle (around the periphery) was an average of approximately 6 inches wide.
c. The deposits in the band were less pronounced and sometimes absent for short distances where depressions or unevenness in the ground surface occurred.
d. A small evergreen bush was located at a point about 40 inches inside the circle and did not appear to have been disturbed in any way nor were any deposits present on or around it.
e. A clothes line frame located on a central pole overhung the circle somewhat and had been in place on the night in question.
f. An antenna wire about 40 feet above the ground overhung the circle, exact amount undetermined.
g. No other vegetation in the area contained any deposits or marks (small trees were present, as close as 6 or 8 feet from the circle).
h. Three types of fertilizer were stored in covered drums near the garage about 15 feet away from the circle.
4. Mr. and Mrs. Storm were interviewed and offered the following information:
a. Mr. Storm cut the grass in the area in question around 1800-1900 hours on 1 Sep 52. The clippings were left where they fell.
b. At 2300 hours on 1 Sep 52, Mr. Storm put his dog in the basement for the night. (Note: the dog barks at anyone who comes into the yard, and, until that time, had not sounded off.)
c. (As related to Mr. Storm later by Mrs. [deleted] a neighbor immediately in the rear of the Storm residence and adjacent to the lawn in question.) Mrs. [deleted] was awakened at about 0400 hours on 2 Sep 52 by barking of dog "which seemed to be in distress." She looked out of a window in the rear of her house but failed to see anything (it was a rather dark night).
d. Upon going out to his car at 0730 hours 2 Sep 52, Mr. Storm noticed the circle and walked over to examine it. He describes it as having at that time a brown, oily-sandy appearance with what seemed to be a very fine granular structure (as though a fine sand mixed with light oil had been spread to form the ring). He rubbed some of the substance between his fingers and found it faintly gritty and definitely oily. Mrs. Storm corroborates this description.
e. During mid-afternoon of 2 Sep 52 Mrs. Storm reexamined the ring and found that the color had changed to grayish blue, and it no longer appeared to be oily. However it still felt oily but no longer felt gritty. She detected no odor upon smelling it.
f. Upon returning from work at 1700 hours 2 Sep 52, Mr. Storm again examined it with his wife. He describes the color as purplish-gray; Mrs. Storm describes the color as bluish gray. Both agree that the substance had begun to form small, closely-packed globules on the blades of grass and that it had begun to "crystallize." Mr. Storm states that it then felt slick (like graphite) when rubbed between the fingers; Mrs. Storm describes it as a powdery feel. (NOTE: There has been no rain since before the evening of 1 Sep 52, and there was a hot sun all day on 2 Sep 52. However, there was a heavy rainfall during the night of 2/3 Sep 52.)
g. During the morning of 3 Sep 52, Mr. Storm reexamined it and "was surprised to find it there after so much rain." He describes its appearance as darker (a slate gray) and still formed in globules on the grass blades. It still felt about like graphite. Perhaps a bit "thinner" than the preceding evening.
5. Mr. and Mrs. [deleted] were not at home and, therefore, were not interviewed.
6. Samples of grass, leaves and soil, and of three types of fertilizer stored nearby were removed for analysis.
7. Mr. and Mrs. Storm were very cooperative and appeared to be completely sincere. They stated that they have not recently evinced much interest in the subject of unidentified flying objects nor had they discussed the subject with anyone, thereby eliminating any obvious motive for a practical joke.
The Air Force recommended that the relevant samples be forwarded to the FBI laboratory for analysis. While this was done, followed by some discussion of the possibility of contamination from fertilizers, the case was left frustratingly unresolved.
Forty years later, official interest in such phenomena continues on the part of U.S. intelligence. Files released by the ultrasecret National Security Agency, for example, detail accounts of crop circles appearing in fields in northern Germany in the 1990s and claims that they were made by human beings. Additional papers from the same time frame declassified by the NSA refer to "mysterious, small circles" that had appeared on the walls of tunnels in Japan's underground railway system that were believed to be caused by a plasma emanating from high-voltage railway power lines.
These records clearly demonstrate that crop circles and crop-circle-like phenomena have been investigated at an official level on both sides of the Atlantic from the early 1940s to the mid-1990s. To what extent similar investigations may have continued since then, however, still has many researchers of the puzzle going, quite literally, around in circles.
Copyright © 2003 by Nick Redfern and Andy Roberts