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The Ghost Rockets

January 14, 2011
Searching for a crashed Ghost Rocket on Lake Kölmjärv, 1946. Public Domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Karl-Gösta Bartoll searching for a crashed Ghost Rocket on Lake Kölmjärv, 1946. Public Domain image from the Swedish Air Force via Wikimedia Commons.

It was May of 1946 and Europe had finally reached the end of World War II. Even so, its effects were still reverberating around the continent and disturbing the new peace. Greece had descended into civil war a few months earlier, and the Soviet Union was lowering the Iron Curtain—as was famously pointed out by Winston Churchill in March of that year. Sweden had managed to avoid the conflict by maintaining neutrality where they could and occasionally favoring the Nazis or the Allies as necessary. With the fall of Germany, though, the government of Per Albin Hansson was looking nervously at the Soviet Union. Sweden and Russia had been traditional enemies through the 1700s, culminating in the conquest of Finland by the Russians at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and its transfer from Swedish sovereignty. Now after three decades of independence Finland was back under the informal control of Moscow (leading to the new word “finlandization“) and the Swedes were concerned that they were next.

Into this tense situation flew the Ghost Rockets, which some have pointed to as the first UFO flap (predating Kenneth Arnold’s flight over Mount Rainier by a year). A description of them can be best given through an extended quote from a January 1947 article in the US War Department General Staff’s circular “Intelligence Review”:

Flying missiles were first reported over southern Sweden in late May 1946 by the press, which gave the missiles the name of ‘Ghost Rockets.’ In June, these missiles also had been reported over Finland and Denmark. By July, the number of sightings over Sweden had greatly increased, and several also had been reported over Norway. The great majority of these reports were made by untrained observers and, as would be expected, vary widely in the description of the actual missiles as well as, of their course, altitude and speed.…The two most common descriptions of the missiles were ‘a ball of fire with a tail’ and a ‘shiny cigar-shaped object.’ The reported direction of flight covered all points of the compass, with a northerly direction being slightly predominant. Variations in altitude ranged from treetop height to 160,000 feet, the higher altitudes almost exclusively being reported from Finland. Speeds reported were from 65 m.p.h. to ‘lightning fast,’ with the majority described as having great or very great speed. The missiles generally have been reported as diving into the ground or into lakes, or exploding in the air.

One was even photographed by a young Swedish couple, Erik and Åsa Reuterswärd, during the day on July 9th. After hearing an appeal from the Swedish Ministry of Defense for any evidence of the rockets they sent in their photo, which was eventually published by the Swedish press. In all there were over 2,000 reported sightings, with the last only coming in December, 1946. Suspicion immediately fell on the Soviet Union, which had conquered the German rocketry centre at Peenemünde, on the south side of the Baltic Sea across from Sweden.

This wasn’t the first time Sweden had dealt with rocket overflights. On June 13, 1944 a V-2 (this one fired by the Germans, who still controlled Peenemünde at that stage of the war) went off course, passed on to the Swedish mainland, and exploded roughly a thousand meters above the town of Bäckebo. A great deal of debris rained down, was collected, and was eventually traded to the UK for several Spitfires. It, along with other rocket parts recovered by the Polish Home Army, was important in the Allied effort to reconstruct and understand the V-2.

This is also, unfortunately, the major problem for the theory that the Ghost Rockets were Soviet tests. Despite considerable effort by the Swedish government, not a single piece of undeniable rocket debris was recovered from the supposed overflights of 1946. At the time the Swedish Defense Staff said they had recovered several bits and pieces, but eventually they were all pinned down to more mundane origins. Much more typical was the result of an intensive push to find debris after a reported Ghost Rocket crash into Lake Kölmjärv on July 19th: nothing. The officer in charge of that search, Karl-Gösta Bartoll (pictured above) stated that he believed the bottom of the lake had been disturbed, so the crashing rocket must have been made of some lightweight alloy that broke up completely. It’s an interesting theory, but another potential reason for the negative result should be obvious to the reader. The Bäckebo rocket yielded pieces weighing up to several hundred kilograms; the Ghost Rockets in their hundreds produced no exhaust nozzles or fuel lines, not even a nut or a bolt. So what else might they have been?

Two British officers from the then-existing MI10 who helped the investigation in the fall of 1946 noted that many of the Ghost Rockets were seen on August 9th and 11th. Those dates have those of you who are astronomically inclined saying “A-ha!“, but for everyone else’s benefit: they’re in the middle of the annual Perseid meteor shower. The main explanation seems to be that people, primed by recent rocket stories to keep an eye on the sky, noticed many more meteors than they normally would. It’s been pointed out by later commentators that the sightings on those two days were not at the usual height of the Perseids (early in the morning before sunrise, when the Earth rotates into the path of the cometary stream that causes the meteors), but then meteor showers do have many more stray bits of debris spread outside of their nightly peaks.

So meteors are at least part of the answer, but possibly not its entirety. After all, the earliest Ghost Rockets were seen in May, well before the Perseids came along. The British report assumed that the others were also meteors, just reported less often because they were from lesser showers or so-called “sporadic meteors” and so less noticeable. In theory all it would take would be one person seeing a meteor in May, then concluding that it was a rocket and getting that into the media, for everyone else to start looking at the sky and seeing (and misinterpreting) things they didn’t normally notice. Certainly other mysterious waves of events, like the Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic, can be explained by a combination of media attention and geopolitical tension.

There are signs that the Ghost Rocket story was out of control to some extent. For example, the crash of a Saab 18 bomber on August 12th was reported in the press to have been the result of a collision with a Ghost Rocket, even though the Swedish Air Force attributed it to pilot inexperience. The psychological explanation gets a further boost when one realizes there was even another, smaller burst of similar sightings in Sweden in the 1930s, when certainly no-one had the ability to launch missiles over the country.

So assuming it’s meteors for most of the sightings, is it still possible that a few of the Ghost Rockets really were V-1 and V-2 tests by the Soviets? There’s a residue of reports that don’t fit the meteor theory very well—the “shiny cigar-shaped object[s]” in the long quote above. The Russians are known to have restarted rocket parts production in Germany for a while in 1946, and they may have used some of them. It is worth noting that Peenemünde was heavily damaged when it was captured by the 2nd Belorussian Army Group in May of 1945, so it would have been difficult, if not impossible to conduct tests from there. The German-made parts didn’t get any known use until 1947, after the USSR had deported German rocket scientists and engineers to southern Russia; the first documented Soviet V-2 tests were in 1947 at Kapustin Yar, near Astrakhan and far, far away from Sweden. Tests of captured V-1s (a much simpler rocket) began as early as March of 1945, but they were even further east near Tashkent. Still, in the Byzantine maze that is Soviet archive secrecy it may be that we simply haven’t seen any documentary proof of earlier tests yet. Until then, though, the Ghost Rockets seem to have been a remarkable case of mass delusion.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Borja permalink
    June 21, 2011 2:30 AM

    excellent blog here. i’ve read every article now. i know it must be very time-consuming for you to do this. i was wondering if perhaps you could suggest some interesting things for me to research, specfically in the field of native american studies and ancient archaeology? your articles on the dorset culture, the plain of jars, and terra preta and the amazonian civilization were simply fascinating and i’d love to discover more of the same. thanks for doing what you do!

    • Paul Drye permalink*
      June 21, 2011 9:06 AM

      Your best bet, I’d say, is to look for a book called 1491, by Charles C. Mann. It’s an excellent overview of the way what we know about the history of the pre-Columbian Americas is shifting. It’s only a couple of years old and so still up-to-date on what’s new.

      After Columbus, I can think of a number of possibilities. Besides what I’ve covered in the blog you’ve got the pueblo cultures of the US Southwest, the Mapuche and their longest war against European colonization in history, and the temperate rain-forest natives of the Pacific Northwest who more or less developed a small civilization despite not having agriculture. There’s also the unusual case of the Comanches who went from plain-old hunter-gatherers to Genghis Khan-like empire on the backs of European-introduced horses that they obtained before Europeans actually arrived in that part of the US.

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