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The Cuxhaven Incident

Most forteans in the non-English language countries become interested in the subject after reading general works on mysteries, whose sensationalism is only matched by their unreliability: the ancient-astronaut authors like Daniken, Charroux and Kolosimo are the obvious examples.

One of the stories that had always deeply intrigued me was Kolosimo's mention of an Unidentified Submersible Object (USO) episode in Cuxhaven, Germany. He told the story of two gigantic fountains which suddenly were ejected in Cuxhaven harbor in 1959.(1) He speculates a mysterious submarine, possibly alien, had invaded the town. Germany, he added, protested at NATO, for officials thought it had been a NATO maneuver of which they had not been informed in advance.

The story reads differently in the English translation of Kolosimo's Italian original, so that some of the inconsistencies may be due to a careless translation. The English version runs: "...the Cuxhaven incident on April 21st 1959 when huge columns of water spurted skywards as if there were a bombardment in action. The Germans actually thought it was a NATO naval exercise and protested about not having been informed. But their supposition was wrong: no explosion had been heard...and a later examination dispelled the idea that natural phenomena were involved." (2) No submarine is mentioned here, and the text -- double the length of the German one -- is more correct. However, both versions do not tell the whole story. The place-name and the date were correct, I found when I investigated the story. The incident had hit headlines in all German newspapers and even was discussed in the Federal Diet in Bonn. It is, or appears to be, a modern version of a phantom army in the sky.

The Suddeutsche Zeitung, one of the major serious papers of the Federal Republic, started with a brief note on page 1 on April 23, 1959:

Planes of unknown nationality have dropped, during 19 flights lasting all through Thursday, 45 bombs about 5 kilometres north of the Knechtsand, a sand-bank at Cuxhaven. Smoke clouds as well as several planes flying at a very high altitude were observed by the people in several coastal towns and by the coast guard.

The shock in Germany had to be great: Only a few years ago, when Britain had decided to destroy the island Helgoland, resistance was high in northern Germany. The island was seen as a national symbol, and young people from all over the country camped on the cliffs to stop the destruction. Their protest was in vain, but the island proved too tough for the bombs, so the British gave up and returned the island to the Federal Republic. Now, in 1959, Germany was a member of NATO. Things like the Cuxhaven meant that the state was still regarded as occupied territory where the occupation force could do whatever it wanted -- shades of Helgoland. The Cuxhaven incident, in short, shook a nation which was only slowly recovering from recognizing its own brutal history of the Nazi regime; a nation that had decided to flee from its responsibility by becoming rich, buying and consuming.

The Ministry of Defense was quick to point out that there had been a bombardment, but that the Allied Headquarters had declared they were innocent. Officials from Great Britain declared none of their planes had been in the area. Allied forces had used the Knechtsand as bombing training ground up to autumn 1957, when the contract that granted it ran out. Shortly after, the Lower-Saxony Ministry for Culture declared the Knechtsand to be an area under environmental protection.

The Government of the Federal Country of Lower-Saxony could not tolerate such a violation of a protected area. Strong political debate followed, and the opposition wanted to know why the Government was not acting against such aggression. The Foreign Ministry became active, asking all NATO partners, the British Ministry of Defense and the American Command. They all denied knowledge. A Social Democrat deputy in the Federal Diet formally asked the Government in Bonn for an explanation: "A spokesman for the Federal Army has confirmed," he summed up what was known four days after the incident, "that the explosions had been heard by well-trained soldiers and have been observed through binoculars. The planes flew so high that no identification was possible." (3)

We see that, within less than a week, an incident witnessed by all from coastal towns has become something far less precise, with the observation of planes more assumed than actually confirmed, that had only been heard by several soldiers.

The scene changed again two days later. The Federal Ministry of Defense said it could not rule out that they were dealing with "submarine explosions." And: "It cannot be ruled out that the planes flew in from the east, and that NATO's detective system failed to detect them is a point worth consideration." The General Lieutenant of the Army, Heusinger, was to go clear the whole affair with all NATO partners in Paris. We see that, to dismiss the incident, the East was implicitly blamed. And, if it had not been planes, the underwater explosions were another way out.

At least at that moment the Army must have realized that the whole affair was a misidentification -- clouds and other natural phenomena had been interpreted by some soldiers as a war move. They backed out further on April 27, when the Ministry of Defense told the press, "While the cause of the bombardment is still unknown, we should stress that many eyewitness reports about the planes and a report ascribed to the Commander of Cuxhaven are not authentic. The witnesses have observed not a single plane, and radar was unable to detect anything." There remained only one fact -- that soldiers had seen smoke on the water and had heard loud explosions. (4)

Enough doubts had been raised, so the Suddeutsche Zeitung had one of their reporters investigate the whole affair. And all evidence additional to the soldiers' exciting experience proved to be false. It had been told that the Captain of the light-ship Wessen had first alarmed the soldiers. "No, we haven't made any report. We didn't see or hear anything. No-one has dropped bombs. This is all nonsense," he said. Also, not a single person in Cuxhaven had heard the detonation -- a curious contrast to the times when the Knechtsand had still been an airforce training ground.

So, after one week, a reconstruction of the incident sounded like this: An inspector of the water police had called the watchtower of the Federal Army at Sahlenberg, situated on the beach, to ask if they had any report about a plane crash in the region. They didn't, but started to observe. And through their binoculars, they saw strange things. Commander Hebestreit:

My soldiers have observed, from the morning well into late evening, white fountains northeast of the Knechtsand. These fountains were accompanied by brown-yellow smoke phenomena, which can only have been due to burning explosive powder. The observation tower counted 19 flights and at least 45 impacts, which were continuously reported to Cuxhaven until their end at 19.23 hours. They couldn't see the planes which dropped the bombs because the cloud cover was too low. Also, no-one in Cuxhaven heard the detonation because northeastern winds carried the sound over the North Sea.

The Suddeutsche Zeitung could not be convinced. In an editorial, it commented: "so we are left with the curious fact that these questionable detonations were of such a nature that they could only [be] perceived by the sharp ears of the Federal Navy, and by no-one else." (5)

It was clear that Hebestreit was only defending the integrity of his soldiers. The German army was young and had been installed against protest in the population. The last thing many Germans wanted was new German soldiers. While the army, in new press releases, confirmed that the attacks had been observed, they also stressed there was no additional confirmation by witnesses or radar. They simply pushed responsibility further: it was the duty of NATO to find the truth, they declared at the end of April.

It was best to let the affair quietly fade away. The conservative London Daily Telegraph had already implied the Cuxhaven affair was Germany's Loch Ness Monster. And the Suddeutsche Zeitung suggested, the Army should try the following explanations: "whales, crashing satellites, a submarine volcano erupting -- because you can't blame water spirits for it." (6)

And here the story ends. What is left is a simply psychological explanation for the whole incident. Imagine the soldiers sitting in their 60-foot watchtower on a lonely beach in a nature reserve. They have nothing to do but scan the sky and sea, day after day, and nothing ever happens. Nerves, nevertheless, are highly strung: we are still in the time when Western Europe expected the Russian invasion to take place any day. Finally, something exciting is reported: a plane may have crashed into the sea. They start to observe, and really, there are fountains (which may be nothing but surf) and there is smoke (simple clouds). And they report to their commander, who becomes agitated as well -- because the history of the area is so sensitive, because an attack by British forces on it would mean his army, only recently forced upon Germany under protest, is not taken seriously by the British. And so the story starts, and cannot be stopped until it is too late. The initial report about a crashing plane could have been due to many natural phenomena, a meteor, or even a bird. The problem the army faced was to be insulted, but at the same time having to play the affair down not to insult the new military partners. Even if there had been a bombardment, they'd all have to deny. But all evidence shows we are dealing with a complex case of mass misidentification -- a case that has something to tell all UFO-investigators, because quite evidently rumors about crashed saucers will have developed, and been confirmed and denied, by similar sociological pressures.


1. Peter Kolosimo, Sie kamen von einem anderen Stern (Munich: Goldmann, 1970).
2. Peter Kolosimo, Not of this World (London: Sphere, 1971), p. 110.
3. Suddeutsche Zeitung, April 25, 1959, p. 2.
4. Ibid., April 28, 1959.
5. Ibid., April 28, 1959, p. 2
6. Ibid., April 29, 1959.

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