The "Ghost Rockets"
early post-WWII fears of guided missile proliferation
In early 1946, numerous reports of anomalous meteor-like phenomena, as well as seemingly reliable stories of impacts of apparent projectiles of some type (often in lakes) began to reach government and media circles in Scandanavia. Since some of the objects appeared to be missiles, complete with wings, intelligence services began to take note of the apparitions, which had been dubbed "Spook Rockets" or "Ghost Rockets" by the press. As noted below, the Commander in Chief of the Swedish armed forces, Gen Helge Jung, personally witnessed these rocket-like events (on two separate occasions).
The 1946 Ghost Rocket flap represents an intriguing prelude to the "flying saucer" wave of 1947 in that many of the reports do sound remarkably like descriptions of low altitude cruise missiles, but there is virtually no possibility that the Soviet Union either possessed large numbers of highly upgraded V-1s with sophisticated guidance systems (or other winged, long-range, high-speed guided vehicles) at that early date, or that it would have launched them deliberately and repeatedly toward neighboring countries in peacetime even if it did. Straddling the gap between UFO waves and war scares, the Ghost Rockets are one of the earliest examples of Western concerns over the proliferation of guided missile technology.
The Swedish military was given a unique perspective on reports of stray experimental missiles by its experience with them during World War II. Between 1943 and the surrender of Nazi Germany, several V-1 cruise missiles and a V-2 ballistic missile launched on test missions from Peenemunde, the German rocket installation on the Baltic coast, had gone off course and crashed in Swedish territory. These vehicles had been carefully analyzed by Swedish and Allied intelligence teams who were desperate to learn the secrets of the advanced weapons. When the first reports of missile-like luminous phenomena began to come in in early 1946, the same Swedish technical intelligence personnel who had studied the German weapons began to compile reports and look for patterns that might give a clue to the nature of the bizarre objects. By July 1946 enough persuasive reports of low-altitude rocket-like phenomena had been received that the Försvarets Forskningsanstalt (FOA), the Swedish Defense Research Agency, had produced several scale models of the more advanced late-war German missiles and used them to create a photomontage that simulated these missiles in flight. This photo was highly unrealistic -- the V-2 and "A 4" (a misnomer for the A9 winged version of the V-2) were long-range, supersonic high-altitude missiles that would never be seen flying along at sea level like airplanes (although the A9 would be visible in the last phases of its wingborne glide toward its target), and the Wasserfall and Rheintochter R1 were both short-range antiaircraft weapons -- but it might have been intended to provide a sort of "identikit" reference to help establish some credible data regarding the configuration of the reported objects. More importantly, each instance of an apparent Ghost Rocket impact was carefully investigated by military search parties who recovered suspected rocket debris and subjected it to technical analysis. By the end of 1946 the special Ghost Rocket committee of the Swedish Defense Staff had examined some 100 reports of rocket impacts. Of the total of 973 Ghost Rocket reports that had been received by the Defense Staff to November 29, 1946, 225 were considered observations of "real physical objects" and every one had been seen in daylight hours. It was difficult to dismiss the numerous reports as being caused by sightings of ordinary meteors, particularly because some of the objects were seen for tens of seconds and had intermittent flame trails that witnesses compared to the exhaust flames from V-1 cruise missiles.
Since it was known that many of the objects had vanished in loud smoky explosions just before striking the ground, and no identifiable hardware was recovered at the sites, the Swedish Ghost Rocket committee began to suspect that the mystery missiles were constructed of some special type of light alloy, possibly magnesium, that would disintegrate or burn up prior to impact. This concept would become a crucial theme of the early post-WWII UFO phenomenon.
Daily newspaper reports in Stockholm, London and the US in July and August 1946 ratcheted up fears that the Soviets were using the missiles - by then reported by several witnesses a day - as instruments in some sort of sinister political intimidation campaign, perhaps as an indirect reply to the US Crossroads nuclear tests in the Pacific on July 1 and July 25 - the first nuclear detonations since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Amid the growing furor, US Navy Secretary James Forrestal happened to arrive in Stockholm from Berlin on July 16 for an official visit as part of an around-the-world trip following his observation of the Crossroads Able test at Bikini. He had heard about what the Western Allies percieved as growing Soviet belligerence firsthand from General Lucius Clay in Germany, and while in Stockholm may have been briefed on what was known about the suspected missile phenomenon to that point:
Forrestal departed for London on the 18th. British documents reflect the same sense of confused unease there. On the 16th, British official C. B. Jerram in the British legation in Stockholm cabled the Foreign Office to report that that he had met with Swedish Chief of Combined Intelligence, who confided that the Swedes were worried that the Soviets were behind the phenomenon but were unwilling to publicly so state, stressing '"the vital importance of utmost secrecy and delicacy of the position regarding other nations."' (Public Records Office FO371/56988, quoted in David Clarke and Andy Roberts, Out of the Shadows). Two days later, Squaron Leader Heath of the British Air Ministry and Maj Malone (MI10(a) - artillery and rocket intelligence, British War Office) flew to Stockholm and rushed to a Ghost Rocket briefing at the Swedish Air Ministry. As an indication of the sensitivity of the mission, they reported that they traveled in civilian clothes at Swedish request. Jerram reported in a Secret telegram to the Foreign Office that "Swedes stress need for utmost secrecy and object of Mission is to be confined to selected members of British and Swedish General Staffs only." Jerram added that the sense of the Swedes was that "too many missiles have been observed and described to allow of explanation as meteorites." (FO cables quoted in Clarke and Roberts)
Simultaneously, the Foreign Office issued a comprehensive summary of Ghost Rocket incidents to date which was circulated widely within the British government and even reached Washington, where it became part of a thick classified summary on the phenomenon that was addressed to senior officers of the Army Air Force, including Chief of Staff Carl Spaatz and General Curtis LeMay. The US document contained a map showing certain suspected rocket impact locations and suspected launch sites including Peenemunde, the Aland Islands, and Porkkala, a coastal military base in Finland that had been ceded to the USSR.
On July 19th, as if in mockery of Forrestal's visit to Sweden, one of the most important Ghost Rocket incidents occurred. At about 11:45 AM a gray two-meter rocket-shaped device was seen by multiple witnesses to impact in Lake Kolmjarv in northern Sweden with a large waterspout and explosion. The next day, a Swedish military team under Lt Karl-Gosta Bartoll arrived to search for debris. FOA engineers scanned for radioactivity. A raft was constructed to aid the search, which continued for two weeks. The lake bottom was charted and was found to be disturbed but no hardware or debris was recovered despite a meticulous search. Bartoll reported that "there are many indications that the Kolmjarv object disintegrated itself...the object was probably manufactured in a lightweight material, possibly a kind of magnesium alloy that would disintegrate easily, and not give indications on our instruments." (FOA Report to GR committee, Sept 1946; Svenska Dagbladet 22 July 46 - cited in Lilijgren and Svahn) On July 21, the Swedes reactivated their wartime radar network and began seeking radar confirmation of the visual reports. Amazingly, they did begin to receive anomalous tracks, but their erratic courses simply added to the mystery.
On July 25, the Swedish paper Morgon-Tidningen reported that Swedish military was now requesting public assistance with reports, which were to be sent to the "Air Defense Division, Defense Staff, Stockholm 90....It is possible that the flying bombs which are seen crossing Sweden both with a western direction and in a directly opposite direction, are taking a round trip over the country in order then to return to their place of origin...that they are meteors in every case is a theory which has been rejected without further ado by the defense staff."
On August 14, the New York Times reported that "Under-Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, said today he personally was very much interested in reports of rockets flying over Sweden but that the Swedes had not sought any American advice on the subject." On the 22nd, the Times ran a page two article headlined "Russia Said To Make V-Weapons In Zone":
Factions within the Swedish, British and American intelligence services were deeply concerned with the possibility that the rockets represented Stalin's saber-rattling, although there were equally deep divisions between those who took the reports at face value and those who discounted them. For instance, British technical intelligence expert R V Jones, who had been responsible for evaluating evidence on the WWII German guided missile programs, was highly skeptical that the meteor-like phenomena were actually missiles. On the other hand, other experts - at surprisingly high levels - came to the opposite conclusion.
The following is a US file on the Ghost Rocket phenomenon from August 1946 that includes a top secret memo to President Harry Truman from Army Air Force Lt General Hoyt Vandenberg, director of the Central Intelligence Group, stating that the "weight of evidence" pointed to the Soviet-occupied missile test facility at Peenemunde, Germany as the origin of the mystery missiles. Vandenberg also passed along rumors that a Soviet ship in the Baltic was providing radio guidance correction for the missiles. The CIG speculated that the missiles were being flown primarily for experimental purposes, aimed for the Gulf of Bothnia, and did not overfly Swedish territory specifically for intimidation, although, said Vandenberg, that was probably a secondary consideration.
Peenemunde, as far as most sources indicate, was at the time still devastated and inactive, apparently far from capable of launching super-sophisticated cruise missiles on provocation overflights of the Scandanavian countries.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Ghost Rocket affair is the controversy it generated within the Western military intelligence establishments. While Vandenberg's CIG may have feigned a certain degree of confidence that the objects actually were Soviet experimental missiles, no hard evidence was forthcoming from the Swedes and the US and British technical intelligence representatives were put in the position of secretly competing to wheedle data out of their uncommunicative Swedish counterparts, all against the daily media cacophony about newly reported sightings. The senior US Military Attache in Stockholm at the time, Army Air Force Major General Alfred Kessler, sent a Secret cable to the Pentagon on August 24 that contradicted Vandenberg's CIG report by shrewdly theorizing that the rocket rumors were an "unintentional hoax" on the part of the Swedish military - i.e., that the Swedes, oversensitized to missile reports by their World War II experiences, had frightened themselves into believing that the new objects (which in his opinion really were a variety of mundane events) actually were Soviet missiles, and that this "hoax"
Sightings spread to other European countries, including Italy, Greece, France, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, then eventually tapered off in the late summer of 1946.
Since the Ghost Rockets were never firmly pinned on the Soviets, interest in the phenomenon continued for years. Some sightings and unusual radar trackings were made in early 1947, and by that July the US Navy conducted electronic intelligence (ELINT) ferret flights near Peenemunde as part of Operation PASSIONATE, possibly the earliest post-WWII US reconnaissance mission on the perimeter of the Soviet Union. Ferret squadron VP-26 Det 214, flying modified PB4Y Privateers, reported that it had obtained intercepts of signals from the former German installation which they interpreted as radar emissions and directional guidance beams similar to those used during WWII for certain German missile experiments.
On July 13, 1947, in the wake of a phenomenal outbreak of flying object sightings in the US, these apparent confirmations of Soviet missile activity in the Baltic the previous year leaked to the press, and respected journalists Joseph and Stewart Alsop claimed that it had been "established beyond doubt" that the objects reported over Sweden had actually been versions of the German A9 winged glide missile that had been developed in a joint German/Soviet program.
The Berlin Crisis the following year provoked more concern about the location and nature of Soviet installations in the Baltic. On August 24, 1948, Col J. E. Mallory, of the USAF Directorate of Intelligence's Requirements Division Reconnaissance Branch, reported that special cameras had been loaned to the Swedish Air Force, which had recently conducted reconnaissance flights over the Eastern Baltic islands of Dago and Osel (Hiiumaa and Saaremaa, adjacent to Estonia), the supposed launch site of some of the mystery missiles. These islands lie roughly 150 miles east of Stockholm and would have been logical sites for launch facilities for V-1-class cruise missiles. Based on comments made in a Top Secret Air Force Intelligence memo dated August 1949, the Swedish reconnaissance missions actually had discovered V-1 (Chelomei 10X - the Soviet V-1 copy) launch sites and associated antiaircraft batteries during the covert missions over these islands.
US intelligence forces continued to issue reports blaming the Ghost Rockets on Soviet experiments well into 1948. The October issue of the classified, official Pentagon publication Air Intelligence Digest, which featured a photo of Soviet Long Range Air Force Chief Marshal Aleksandr Golovanov on its cover, contained an article titled "Fires in the Sky" which reported that
The German missile engineers under Soviet control had in fact been moved to Lake Seliger by that time...but were the Soviets really responsible for the Ghost Rocket phenomenon? Even assuming that most of the reports were "noise," was there any signal present? While it is not possible that even a sizeable portion of the too-numerous reports could have been missiles, was even one of the overflights or alleged impacts an actual Soviet V-1-class missile that went astray, either after launch from the Peenemunde region, the Estonian islands, or from an airplane over the Baltic? British and US intelligence documents from 1946 make it clear that the Swedish government was actutely sensitive to the problem of angering the Soviets by publicizing such information, and it seems possible that it would have suppressed hard evidence at the time. But would such a coverup have endured for decades?
"What Are Your Reactions?"
Up to this point, the Ghost Rocket affair could be viewed as just an intriguing mystery from the early formative days of the Cold War, when the two sides were growing more and more mistrustful, and the West was unsure of Soviet motives and lacked means of judging the lengths to which Stalin would go to attain them.
But the story takes a turn that warps it out of the realm of "acceptable conventional military history." By 1948, stimulated by the details of the eyewitness accounts of the strange behavior of many of the alleged missiles, another theory was beginning to develop. Swedish intelligence intimated that as time passed it had begun to mull over the possibility that the Ghost Rockets were "interplanetary" vehicles of some type, due to the alleged lack of hardware from missile impacts and the unlikelihood that the Soviets would have conducted extremely risky and apparently purposeless missile overflights of Scandanavia for more than two years. The "interplanetary" theory was conspicuously absent from intelligence comments on the Ghost Rockets in 1946, but the idea would grow and take hold as more and more unusual reports were collected in the ensuing months. It was the birth of a tenacious controversy.
Analysts with a skeptical attitude might view this theory as a way for the Swedish military to squirm out of the corner it had seemingly painted itself into. Based on Sweden's political orientation during WWII, when it had tried to avoid aligning with either Hitler or the Allies, it seems difficult to visualize the Swedish government making strong protests to Stalin in 1946 even if indisputable evidence missile impacts had been obtained. If Sweden had in fact recovered verifiable debris from one or more stray Russian missiles and the government considered this too dangerous to reveal, it may have believed that floating rumors of extraterrestrial origin might have clouded the issue of the magnitude of its concern over more local threats. On the other hand, if no missile evidence existed, the numerous highly unusual reports were still hard to swallow as being caused by mundane phenomena, such as meteors, since many of the objects reportedly did not conform to meteor behavior. If the witness testimony, including that of senior members of the Swedish military, was to be accepted, some other explanation was necessary.
The document cited above demonstrates that the Swedish "interplanetary" theory reenforced similar thinking within US Air Force Intelligence just at the time when Project SIGN's Top Secret "UFO Estimate" was circulating through the American intelligence division. SIGN's "Estimate" apparently attempted to make the same case as the Swedes - that ongoing reports of rocket-like anomalous phenomena were accurate accounts of real vehicles that could not be the products of known technologies.
An additional point might be made. It appears that if some of the Ghost Rocket incidents actually did involve observations of Soviet-launched missiles, a precedent was established very early on in the Cold War era for accidental masking of missile activity as UFO incidents. Much later in the history of Soviet clandestine missile activity, such masking seems to have become a planned policy.
While many UFO histories refer to the Ghost Rockets as a prelude to the 1947 Flying Saucer wave, English-language official documentation on the phenomenon is surprisingly absent from the published record and the rocket scare is essentially ignored by aerospace history. One of the best accounts is "Ghost Rockets and Phantom Aircraft," by Anders Liljegren and Clas Svahn, in Phenomeon: Forty Years of Flying Saucers, John Spencer and Hilary Evans, eds. (Avon, 1988). Thanks to Mr Liljegren for helpful insights on certain issues. His expertise and experience regarding Scandanavian UFO history are unrivaled. Dr David Clarke and Andy Roberts also describe the British reaction to the flap in their book Out of the Shadows.
Special thanks also to Jan Aldrich of Project 1947 and Dr David Clarke for copies of Ghost Rocket-related documents from the US State Department, Central Intelligence Group, Central Intelligence Agency, SSU, US Army Air Force Intelligence, US Navy Intelligence, British Foreign Office, Air Ministry Technical Intelligence Division, Royal Air Force, and other official sources; to Loren Gross for permission to cite his Ghost Rocket monographs; to Swedish friends for information on the 1948 covert overflights and other rare data; and particularly to Dr S. K.