Did the infamous ‘Operation Blackbird’ surveillance exercise at Bratton Castle in 1990, supposedly duped by hoaxers, actually video the creation of a real crop formation? Rumour has long said so – now GEOFF STRAY has discovered a claimed eye-witness to the events of that night and reveals new information which suggests that the whole story has not been told…
If you visited The Barge Inn near Alton Barnes last year, you may have noticed a man sitting outside his tent next to a stack of board games called ‘Crop Circles – Mystery Board Game’. I bought one of the games and got chatting to the game’s designer – Merlin, aka George Vernon, who told me an amazing story.
George admitted that the game had been an obsession of his for over 10 years, and had profoundly affected his life. The object of the game is to build a miniature version of Stonehenge in the centre of the game-board after the six players have travelled around the board, casting spells on each other and collecting crop formations and bluestones. The player who lays the Heel stone declares Summer Solstice and is “healed”, winning the game.
When he was collecting the component parts for the first batch of games in 1990, George needed a lump sum in order to obtain a bulk order of plastic counters, but had no way of getting hold of the necessary funds. Since he had been ‘inspired’ to produce the game, he went to Stonehenge to ask for the means to be provided. To his amazement, within a few days, a large sum of money appeared in his bank account! He asked the bank to check, since he was sure they must have transferred someone else’s money to him by mistake. However, the bank told him there was no mistake and it was his money, though they couldn’t trace the source. George couldn’t believe his luck, drew out the money, and took some photos of himself throwing wads of banknotes in the air.
George bought the consignment of counters, and had enough money left over to go on holiday, so he nipped across to the Mediterranean for a quick break. While away, he got the film developed, but was searched at Customs on his return to the UK and detained, since the officials wanted to know where all that money in the photos had come from. They didn’t believe his story, so they carried out an investigation. Eventually, they came and told George; “The good news is that we’re dropping the charges – the bad news is, we can’t find out where the money came from.”
In July of 1990, George was returning to Wiltshire one night, after giving a friend a lift down to Somerset, when he saw some lights moving in the distance, in fields away from the road. Since he was interested in crop circles, (the first ‘pictogram’ had appeared almost two weeks previously at Alton Barnes), and having just visited two of them, George thought he might be able to catch hoaxers in the act.
He pulled up by a barn and parked his car. From here, the lights were not visible, but he got out of the car, taking a bundle of game-boards with him, concerned that they could be stolen from his car. He climbed over a fence and headed in the direction he’d seen the lights. When he reached a hedge, he could see one of the lights shining through, so he went along the hedge to the end, ensuring that he would not be seen. He reached the edge of a field about 50 yards further on and could make out a dark shape in the crop. He entered the field to investigate and found a crop formation consisting of two large ringed circles, each with two accompanying smaller ones and three lines separating the groups. At this point George felt an odd compulsion to lay one of his game-boards in each of the six circles, which he did, and then returned to the large circle he had first entered. He turned and saw lights above him in the sky. There were several orange lights, which were “the size of basketballs”, and they were doing crazy manoeuvres, like a juggling act.
George was prepared to believe that if the formations were not hoaxed, they were probably the work of aliens in UFOs, but he wasn’t prepared for this! If these lights were UFOs, then the aliens would be only inches high! George was overcome by a wave of terror and he broke his trusty Merlin staff over his knee and held the pieces over his head to form a cross as protection from the terrible apparition. As his legs started to give way, he laid the cross on top of the game-board already laid on the ground at his feet, and ran all the way back to his car.
George didn’t get much sleep that night as he went over the events in his mind, and realized that he couldn’t remember going the 50 yards between the end of the hedge and the point where he first saw the formation – had his memory been wiped? He also realized that between his car and the hedge, he’d been following a dark shadow.
Imagine his surprise when he saw crop circle researcher Colin Andrews on television the following morning, saying that there had been an all-night surveillance that night on the hill above where George saw the “balls of light” as they are now known, and that they had it all on film! Imagine his dismay when, a few hours later, Colin Andrews was back on TV saying that the formation was a hoax, since they had found “ouija boards and crosses” (1) in the circles. George was so badly affected by the experience that he had to seek medical help, and it has taken him years to get over it. In fact, he said that I was only the second person he’d told the whole story to (the other was Jon King – at that time, editor of UFO Reality magazine). However, he has given me permission to write down his story, to set the record straight, as he himself has since been accused of making the formation. There is only one detail he didn’t tell me, since it was too fantastic to be believed…
Parts of this story will sound familiar to some readers, since Operation Blackbird was quite a high-profile surveillance experiment, sponsored by BBC TV and the Japanese Nippon TV, at Bratton Castle, Wiltshire, scheduled for a ten-day run from 23 July 1990.
Amazingly, following my conversation with George a decade later, later on the same day a fellow Barge visitor called Jonah offered me a choice (in exchange for a blown node) from a selection of old copies of The Cereologist, which he’d bought at the ‘Unusual Experiences’ conference in Marlborough. Among them was Issue 2, with a photo on the cover of a clearly recognisable game-board from George’s game, on top of which was a broken Bo-Peep-style staff in the form of a cross. In the magazine (2), George Wingfield had written quite a detailed report of Operation Blackbird – obviously the source for several subsequent, shorter reports. There were several twists and turns surrounding Operation Blackbird and I’m probably opening up an old wound for many people here, stirring a hornets’ nest among the pigeons, or whatever. But…
HORNETS AMONG PIGEONS
1. The Army lent expertise, equipment and personnel, in exchange for an opportunity to “prove that they (the Circles) are caused by people” (3), they openly admitted.
2. “The two corporals assigned for duty at the Blackbird observation post were absent on the night of the hoax, though they were there on every other night of the project” (4).
3. The formation was at a distance of half a mile from the observation post – just out of the range of the image-intensifiers.
4. Colin Andrews received a letter, apparently from the publicity-stunt-loving ‘KLF’ – a rock group also known as the Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu, (a band name invented by Robert Anton Wilson in his novel Illuminatus, they subsequently enjoyed an out-of-book-experience!), who claimed responsibility for the hoax.
5. When interviewed later, the band denied either sending the letter, or hoaxing the formation.
6. A “piece of red wire” (5) was found in the formation, whose length corresponded to some of the circle diameters.
7. The formation was “roughly fashioned” (6), and showed “Mickey Mouse banality”7.
8. Colin Andrews says (8) that his mobile phone was tapped during Operation Blackbird – calls he made from his car were deducted from the bill, and paid for by the British Government. The names of the people he called and contents of the calls were given to Jim Schnabel, a man some alleged had CIA connections, who later published the information in his 1993 book Round In Circles.
9. The Sunday Sport tabloid found out that Merlin (George Vernon) had designed the game-board and said he’d hoaxed the formation by “rolling around in the corn” (9). However, this was reported by a Mr B Ollocks – it’s a shame that all tabloid crop-circle reporters don’t make it this clear what it is they have written.
10. An informant in the Ministry of Defence finally tied together these threads by confirming that the “Bratton Hoax” had been a planned military operation, and the “Horoscope boards and the wooden crosses” (10) had been placed there by the military to shift the blame away from them.
This last explanation has been generally accepted as the most feasible. However, as we now know, it is at least partially untrue and so opens up the whole can of spanners in the worms….
CAN O’ SPANNERS
1. Wingfield also described the formation as follows: “Whatever was said about the hoaxed formation in farmer Jonathan King’s (not the UFO Reality Jon King) field being crudely trampled, this array of six circles and parallel lines was brilliantly executed” (11). We now know that George had been in there, “crudely trampling”, while running for his life.
2. Colin Andrews’s initial announcement, that at 3.30 that morning “a number of orange lights taking the form of a triangle” (12) had appeared, and that they had “everything on film” (13), has been swept under the carpet with a broom called Branson. Richard Branson’s allegedly passing hot air balloon got the blame for this – still, I suppose it makes a change from weather balloons. Whatever it was, it was not a balloon that George Vernon witnessed that night. So, what happened to the film? The Operation continued, and, according to Michael Hesemann, ten days later, on “5th July” (14) a real formation - ! - was filmed appearing on two night vision cameras, and the film was “fully analysed using the NASA computer in Basingstoke, Hampshire” (15). The formation appeared in “less than 15 seconds” (16) and although the film was never broadcast, part of it appeared in the video documentary ‘Crop Circle Communique’ (17), says Hesemann. Some people may have presumed that because the earlier formation was just out of range of the image intensifiers, the film would have been of no value. However, the lights were much more visible, and appeared on the monitor, so they must be on the film, wherever it is. (Ed’s note - In 1993, during a conversation at The Barge, Martin Noakes and I directly confronted Colin Andrews about the rumours that a real formation was videoed in the act of creation during Operation Blackbird, and were answered with a cryptic reply along the lines of “One day, the whole story will be told”… - Andy Thomas.)
I believe George Vernon saw on that night exactly what he described to me – his emotions and body language convinced me of that. So, either the balls-of-light were attracted by a freshly-hoaxed formation, as claimed by more recent hoaxers, OR those “Little People” were playing games, keeping one step ahead of us, as they tend to do, just when we think we’ve got them!
1. The Crop Circle Enigma, Gateway, 1990, ‘Epilogue: What happened in 1990?’, George Wingfield, p.188
2. The Cereologist, issue 2, Winter 1990. Back-issues from Global Circles Research, 01420 520230
3. Ibid., p.8, ‘A Carefully Planned Hoax’, by George Wingfield
6. The Crop Circle Enigma, Op. Cit. p.188
7. The Cereologist, issue 2, Op.Cit., p.8
8. UFO Reality, issue 2, July 1996. Back-issues available from Growing Needs Bookshop 01458 834040
9. The Cereologist, Op.Cit
10. Ibid., p.10
11. Ibid., p.8
14. The Cosmic Connection, Michael Hesemann, Gateway Books, Bath, 1996, p.29
17. Crop Circle Communiqué, directed by John Macnish, Circlevision, 1991
The controversial Operation Blackbird formation. Photo: Andrew King