The National Archives have constructed an exhibition exploring the impact of the Cold War on all aspects of British life. It’s a fascinating exhibition which explores the 46-year stand-off between the world’s communist and capitalist superpowers, focusing on the impact of war on the British public, as well as detailing the secret goings-on of hidden government bunkers. To accompany the exhibition, a series of talks is taking place at The National Archives which aim to shed light on topics which have previously been overlooked. The talk by Keith Mitchell, The National Archives specialist in UFO sightings, entitled ‘UFOs and the Cold War’ caught my eye.

The Cold War began in 1945, following the surrender of Nazi Germany near the end of WWII. It was only a few years later, Keith pointed out, in July 1952, that the first official report of a UFO came from Washington DC. Suddenly there was a flood of reports of unidentified flying objects from all across the world, prompting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to look into these mysterious sightings. At first it was believed that such objects were enemy aircraft but despite detailed descriptions by reliable sources such as RAF airmen, ultimately the Ministry of Defence decided that most were merely optical illusions or deliberate hoaxes. Were the sightings just the product of the culture of fear and paranoia generated by the Cold War, or was there something more to it?

Photographs above: Keith Mitchell with drawings of UFOs reported to the MOD

The media prompted the public to look to the sky, interest in which was heightened by the space race, which saw the Soviet Union and the United States battle for dominance  in spaceflight capability between 1955-1975. The moon-landing of 1959 brought space travel into everyone’s front rooms, inspiring a mass of sci-fi television dramas and films, including the nation’s favourite, Doctor Who. The increased public interest in the sky, space and extra-terrestrial life coincided with an increase in recorded UFO sightings.

Prior to 1967 records of UFOs weren’t kept. Sightings weren’t that frequent  and the Ministry of Defence dismissed them as unimportant. That changed when reports of UFO sightings tripled from fewer than 100 per year to 360 reports in 1967. Although the MOD publicly put this increase down to extended periods of fine weather resulting in more extensive flying, the decision was nonetheless made to begin tracking the reports. After reviewing the increase in UFO sightings, in 1968 the MOD deemed it necessary to keep UFO files, as a matter of national security.

Keith detailed how foreign governments developed new types of aircraft which could fly above British radar detection making it harder to monitor the skies, which might go some way to explaining why even after UFO sightings began being monitored and investigated, many cases still remained unexplained. Even as our radar systems became more sophisticated, picking up unrecognised signals more efficiently, many of these mysterious signals were never publicly identified. The question mark over UFOs has never been satisfactorily explained, allowing plenty of room for belief in extra-terrestrial involvement. You can judge for yourself by visiting The National Archives and exploring their collection of UFO records.

The National Archives is running a series of talks for the Cold War season, which ends on Saturday 9 November.

From the bomb to The Beatles – Thursday 9 May 2019, 7.30 – 9.00pm

Juliet Gardiner traces the fascinating cultural and social developments in Britain in the twenty years following the Second World War; from the restricted culture of 1945 to the dawn of heady freedoms in the 1960’s.

‘Maximum meaning, minimum means’: the life and work of Abram Games – Friday 7 June 2019, 2.00 – 3.00pm

Abram Games was one of the 20th century’s most important graphic designers. His career spanned 60 years and during the Second World War, he was appointed ‘official war poster artist’. His daughter Naomi looks at his work.

Writing the Cold War: the works of John le Carré – Wednesday 19 June 2019, 7.00 – 10.00pm

The novels of John le Carré have always sought to represent a seamier side to the world of espionage and the supposedly ‘glamorous’ life of a spy. Dr Sam Goodman explores what le Carré’s novels say about Britain and Britishness in a time of declining international authority, shifting global politics, and the shadow of the Cold War.

Dominic Sandbrook: The Iron Curtain and the Iron Lady – Friday 21 June 2019, 7.30 – 9.00pm

Margaret Thatcher prided herself on her reputation as the Iron Lady, a nickname given to her by the Red Army newspaper. And throughout her political career, her role as a Cold War Warrior, rallying the West in a crusade against international Communism, played a central part in her public image. In this enlightening and amusing talk, television presenter and author Dominic Sandbrook explores how the Cold War shaped Mrs Thatcher’s premiership.

For the full programme of events at the National Archives, including Time Travel Club for children and tours of the building, go here.

We also list National Archive events on the daily events listings pages of The Chiswick Calendar.