After close to 60 years, we still do not know what. And not knowing spawns wild speculation.
Not knowing has given the mysterious incident, near Penkridge, in South Staffordshire, a bizarre name, 'Britain’s own Roswell'.
I have, during 50 years in journalism, developed a jaundiced view of UFO sightings, poltergeists in pubs, uncannily roused by new menu boards or new owners, and things that generally go bump in the night.
In the late 1970s, when any alleged Close Encounter of the Third Kind was guaranteed regional headlines, I was tasked with interviewing a housewife who babbled about little green men. They watched from the kitchen windowsill as she washed up, transfixed by the suds.
As I placed notebook in pocket, her concerned husband drew me to one side and whispered: “Try not to make my wife look a nutter.”
I tried, even teasing his quote to read: “My wife’s not a nutter.”
My issues with UFO sightings are twofold:
1: WHY are they invariably captured on film by individuals with trembling hands and poor cameras?
2: WHY do beings from another planet, beings with the immense intellect to overcome the barriers presented by light years, arrive on Earth and seek out Shropshire farm labourers, Tipton supermarket checkout girls and Wolverhampton fast food workers?
Surely, they’d make a bee-line for US president Joe Biden, China’s leader Xi Jinping, even Putin. Wouldn’t they sort that out before making the long journey from another galaxy?
Nevertheless, something decidedly strange occurred close to Penkridge’s Cocksparrow Lane, which runs like a thread through Cannock Chase, in February, 1964.
I’m confident it has an “of this world” explanation that now seems unlikely to surface.
Yet the years have given the story a life of its own. Ufologists, cryptologists, conspiracy theorists and the band of brothers unkindly dubbed “the tinfoil hat brigade” have an unwavering belief that, like Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, the splintered remains of an extra-terrestrial ship, fell to the ground.
Like Roswell, evidence was removed from the scene.
Like Roswell, the incident was covered-up by shadowy, powerful organisations.
Hokum, perhaps. Yet the undeniable fact is that Penkridge, a quiet parish once famed for its fairs and markets, has become the unlikely setting for one of the world’s greatest alleged X-Files encounters.
If nothing else, the case provides paper-trail proof of how urban myths grow and become more bloated with each telling until they sink into the thick fabric of fact, not fiction.
Something strange occurred near quaintly named Cocksparrow Lane. The eye-witness accounts endorse that.
Yet it was some 30 years after the event that the first oil-soaked rags of a story that would become a firestorm were ignited.
Blame Leonard Stringfield, head of public relations at an Ohio chemical company and a world-renowned UFO researcher. Stringfield, who died in 1994 aged 74, spent a near lifetime in the fruitless search for downed flying saucers, entitling his dossier, “UFO crash retrievals”.
A slim volume, I’d imagine.
He was given more credence than most in the field. At a time when the planet seemed gripped by ET fever, Springfield was made co-ordinator of the United States Air Force funded Condon Committee, dedicated to the study of Unidentified Flying Objects.
In 1978, he was bizarrely appointed UFO research advisor by Sir Eric Gairy, then Prime Minister of Caribbean country Grenada.
Thirteen years later, Springfield believed he’d finally uncovered the smoking gun he’d been searching for.
He had a chilling written account from a whistleblower attached to US military intelligence, named as third class petty officer S.M. Brannigan.
Tasked with intercepting Russian transmissions and stationed on a tank landing ship in the Caribbean, Brannigan claimed he decoded a message that brought gasps of disbelief from superiors.
The Soviets had tailed a craft that matched nothing they’d seen before – from its first appearance on their radar to its disintegration in the skies.
Significant portions of the vessel had fallen on Penkridge, Brannigan revealed. Fragments also showered an un-named area of then West Germany.
They were retrieved in an operation involving the USAF and NATO and shipped to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. There were also claims some interstellar shrapnel ended up at Porton Down Scientific Research Centre.
Of the account, Stringfield excitedly wrote: “The Brannigan disclosure, while sketchy, may spotlight only the tip of the iceberg as to the scope of military crash-retrieval operations in foreign lands.
“Researchers know that reports of crashes are worldwide, from pole to pole, on every continent and in many countries.
“If such incidents are to be secreted, it is my suspicion that US special retrieval teams have been, and still are, prepared to go into action into any crash location within its sphere of military and economic influence.”
There are too many “suspicions” and “maybes” to give Springfield’s conclusions anything other than short-shrift.
Then, in 1996, an eyewitness came forward. Harold South had witnessed odd activity on the night a “space craft fell to earth”.
Something decidedly strange happened close to Cocksparrow Lane.
Tracked to his Brownhills home by world renowned paranormal investigator and author Nick Redfern, Mr South said he’d seen wreckage strewn across a Penkridge field, had watched military and police close surrounding roads and seen the remains of what was once a delta-shaped craft being loaded on an aircraft transporter. The evidence was hidden under tarpaulin.
Van driver Mr South maintained he’d taken photographs, but the camera and film were confiscated by police who had stopped him at one cordon, then tracked him down through his vehicle’s registration plate.
The camera was later returned. The film was not.
It’s a quantum mental leap from witnessing crash wreckage to concluding the bent metal belongs to an alien craft.
And passing years may have blurred Mr South’s timeline. In December, 1964, the public panic surrounding the Cannock Chase murders had begun: a nine-year-old was abducted, but survived.
By September of the following year, the beauty spot crawled with officers. Any visitor, at any time of day, was likely to encounter a large police presence.
There’s a sting to Nick Redfern’s story. He says someone got to Mr South before he did.
Writing on website Mysterious Universe, Nick states: “When we got to South’s apartment his entire demeanour had changed. He was clearly a worried man.
“According to South, in between us phoning him and arriving at his home he had received a call warning him not to talk to us.
“We asked him if anyone had rung since the call. He replied ‘no’, so we asked if we could use his phone and dial 1471. Sure enough, there was a number. Not only did we dial, but someone answered.
“It was a woman who was very cagey about identifying herself by name. We were, however, able to prove the number had taken us to an operator service that was run by the military. It was responsible for channelling calls to and from military establishments in the West Midlands.”
Peter McCue, a former clinical psychologist turned author, examined the case in his book, Zones of Strangeness.
Mr McCue, who approaches such reports with an open mind, was sceptical.
He pointed out there was zero press coverage at the time – and Cocksparrow Lane has not been mentioned in Ministry of Defence de-classified files.
Mr McCue reasoned: “If there were hold-ups on a road, you would have thought there would be something in the press at the time, but there was not. It may be, however, the eyewitness got the dates wrong.
“I really don’t know about this one. Certainly, the theory that it was something from Russia rather than outer space seems logical.”
Mr McCue added he doesn’t readily believe that the truth is out there and is frustrated by the lack of hard evidence attached to such incidents.
“One of the hypotheses I’m leaning towards is that when you do get clusters of strange phenomena in one area it may be orchestrated by some higher intelligence, which is not necessary extra-terrestrial.
“The things we see are, if you like, stage props, they do not actually exist. They are being played out before us.”
The last word lies with local paranormal investigator and writer Lee Brickley. He is adamant what happened on Cannock Chase is fact not folklore.
He said: “There is no doubt in my mind that something definitely did happen on Cannock Chase in 1964, the US Navy files alone prove that. But with our overly secret government and their obsession with suppression of knowledge and technology, we may never know the truth.
“You would expect that an incident like this, that obviously involved many different people from many different agencies, would be recorded in some way in MoD files. Unfortunately not.
“We must remember, however, the MoD is very much a government department and these places have a long history of cover-ups. Do you honestly believe if the British government or security services had evidence of craft from outer-space they would see fit to tell us about it? I certainly don’t.”
Don’t tell Lee, but I believe they might. It would certainly be a distraction from the grim round of strikes, rising energy bills, war and spiralling unemployment.
By Mike Lockley