DID German fighter pilot Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, popularly known as the Red Baron, really shoot down a flying saucer over the battlefields of World War I? And did an “Angel” really save the lives of British troops? Bizarrely, a team of British intelligence officers was assigned to investigate weird sightings in the skies during World War I — becoming the precursor of Unidentified Flying Object investigators both real and fictional.

Most of us think of UFOs and mysterious sightings in the sky as a modern phenomenon — but “phantom airships” became a huge panic in the early years of the 20th century and regularly featured in newspapers.

By the time of World War I, a more scientific approach was needed.

A predecessor to MI5, Military Observation Department Five (MO5), under the control of a Lieutenant-Colonel Kell, was assigned the task of classifying sightings in the air. Amid the panic about enemy airships, it was a military necessity to weed out “phantom airships” from real aircraft sightings.

Nigel Watson, author of UFOs of the First World War, says, “It can be regarded as the first ever official guide to studying UFO reports long before the Central Intelligence Agency or any other organisation got with the subject when ‘flying saucer’ sightings were all the rage after World War II. During World War I there were numerous reports of mysterious lights and objects moving about in the skies. These were studied by the Assistant Director of Military Aeronautics, a post held by Lieutenant-Colonel WS Brancker, and the Department of Military Training; and Brancker and Kell can be regarded as the first Mulder and Scully who studied the flow of UFO-type reports that flowed into their offices.”

The reports sent to Brancker and Kell sound eerily like today&’s UFO sightings — and came amid widespread panic not only about enemy airships but also more mysterious sightings. A 1914 telegram from the Chief Constable of Lancashire said, “Large red light seen at 8.45 pm today passing over Runcorn Bridge Arches. Immediately afterwards, an explosion was heard in Widnes and Runcorn.”

The guidelines set out by the war office helped MO5 officers categorise sightings as of natural origin — or as something more mysterious.

Various legends about extraterrestrials were circulated during World War I — of which the most astonishing (and implausible) was that the Red Baron shot down a UFO. After the war, fellow pilots claimed Baron von Richtofen shot down a flying saucer-type craft, from which two inhabitants fled. Fellow German pilot Peter Waitzrick said that the fighters saw an aircraft like an upside down saucer. “We were terrified because we’d never seen anything like it before. The Baron immediately opened fire and the thing went down like a rock, shearing off tree limbs as it crashed into the woods. There&’s no doubt in my mind that the Baron shot down some kind of spacecraft from another planet and those little guys who ran off into the woods were space aliens of some kind,” he said.

But the story is highly dubious, given that Waitzrick didn’t share his story until 80 years after the event, and chose to do so in the US tabloid, Weekly World News.

UFO fans claim that aliens may have “abducted” people from the battlefields of World War I during the Gallipoli campaign. Witnesses claimed to have seen British soldiers marching towards Hill 60 at Sulva Bay in Turkey on 21 August 1915 — before being snatched up by a “solid-looking” cloud.

A statement from a supposed eyewitness published in 1965 said, “When they arrived at this cloud, they marched straight into it with no hesitation, but no one ever came out to fight. About an hour later, this cloud very unobtrusively lifted off the ground until it joined other similar clouds, then they all moved away northwards.”

It seems likely, however, that this is a hoax. Documents released after the Armistice suggest that 180 bodies found behind enemy lines are those of the “missing soldiers” — and the story of the cloud is a myth.

An “Angel” which many British soldiers credited with saving their lives in one of the first, brutal battles of World War I has been seized on by UFO fans as evidence of extraterrestrials… Many soldiers credited the strange apparitions with saving their lives — and the story became a staple of parish magazines.

The battle had been one of the first in which the British faced the Germans — and despite retreating, only 1,600 lives were lost. Decades later, the debate still rages — some attributing the “Angel” to a short story from the Evening Standard, others to British intelligence.

Popular author Arthur Machen claimed that this legend was created by his fictional The Bowmen story published in The Evening News on 29 September 1914. In it, British soldiers call on St George for aid and are helped by ghostly bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt. One fact that lends weight to this theory is that few reports of the incident exist before Machen&’s story.

Nigel Watson says, “Even today the legend is swathed in controversy. Theories about it range from it being a myth based on Machen&’s story, the product of hallucinations due to stress and exhaustion, real angelic visitations, ghosts, swamp gas, airships or alien UFOs projecting or shaping themselves to the expectations of the witnesses.”

Back in April 2010, Britain released hundreds of previously secret “UFO files”, including a letter saying that Winston Churchill had ordered a 50-year cover-up of a wartime encounter between a UFO and a military pilot. The files, published by the National Archives, span decades and contain scores of witness accounts, sketches and classified briefing notes documenting mysterious sightings across Britain.

One Ministry of Defense note refers to a 1999 letter stating that a Royal Air Force plane returning from a mission in Europe during World War II was “approached by a metallic UFO”. The unidentified author of the letter said his grandfather attended a wartime meeting between Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower, during which the two expressed concern over the incident and “decided to keep it secret”.

The Ministry of Defense subsequently investigated the case but found no written record of the incident, the files say. In a 1999 note, the ministry said it “does not have any expertise or role in respect of ‘UFO/flying saucer’ matters or to the question of the existence or otherwise of extraterrestrial life forms, about which it remains totally open-minded”.

Britain has been slowly releasing long-classified files related to sightings of mysterious craft in the skies above its cities, compiled and investigated by the Ministry of Defense over past decades. Some cases subsequently received rational explanations, such as meteors burning up in the atmosphere, but many are unsolved.

One memo, dated 1997, contains reports of “sonic booms” and a mysterious plane crash in northern England. No wreckage was found in an ensuing search by the police and rescue teams.

Another incident refers to sightings of a “black triangular UFO” over the home of the shadow home secretary in Kent in the late 1990s. An investigation showed no breach of security.

In a case filed in 1995, the captain of a plane approaching Manchester&’s airport reported a near-miss with an “unidentified object” and a witness on the ground separately provided a sketch showing a UFO “20 times the size of a football field” An inquiry failed to indentify the object, the memo said.

Buried deep among meticulous sketches and ministry memos, some files refer to curious episodes in Britain&’s history. During the Cold War, it sent fighter jets to intercept Soviet aircraft as often as 200 times a year, one document from the ministry showed. The note, filed in 1996, said mystery sightings picked up on radar during the Cold War were invariably proved to be Soviet anti-submarine or long-range reconnaissance planes. “Prior to the demise of the former Soviet Union, aircraft were scrambled some 200 times annually to intercept and investigate uncorrelated tracks penetrating the UK air defence region from the north,” it said.

The last such scramble was in September 1991 — around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.