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Should Goddard’s Squadron Drop Dead Fred?

Feb. 02, 2015 by | Comments (16)
This is Blake’s first post exploring the “Goddard’s Squadron Ghost” photo. Read his second post on this topic, “New Facts Concerning Goddard Squadron Photo” (published July 31, 2015).
Photo of squadron allegedly including the ghost of Freddy Jackson.

CLICK TO ENLARGE. Scanned copy of Bobbie Capel’s squadron photo allegedly including the ghost of Freddy Jackson.

I love looking at “ghost photos.” They’ve fascinated me all my life, but at some point I realized they didn’t all have to remain mysteries. The Watertown ghost photo and the Wem Town Hall ghost photo are now known to be hoaxes, for example. But some still call out for research.

One of the famous photos still promoted as a legitimate piece of photographic evidence for ghosts is that now known as the ghost of Goddard’s Squadron, allegedly the spirit of a dead chap named Freddy Jackson. It dates from the end of World War I and shows a group of military personnel standing for a squadron portrait. But according to the tale behind this image there is one extra person in the photo—and he’d been dead for a few days.

At the top of this post is a nearly uncropped scan of the photo in question. In the back row, if you look closely at the fourth sailor from the left, you’ll see that behind his head is a ghostly face.

photo detail allegedly showing ghost of Freddy Jackson

Detail of Goddard’s Squadron photo showing alleged face of Freddy Jackson ghost.

An enlargement of the photo shows the “ghostly” image of a capless person’s face. This anomaly is the source of the photo’s popularity in the world of paranormal enthusiasts.

If you search for “Goddard’s Squadron” on the web you’ll find many web pages listing the photo in their ghost-photo listicles. With the photo will come a short story explaining how the photo was taken just days after Freddy Jackson accidentally walked into a moving propeller—but he wouldn’t miss the squadron photo!

Here is an example from

This intriguing photo, taken in 1919, was first published in 1975 by Sir Victor Goddard, a retired R.A.F. officer. The photo is a group portrait of Goddard’s squadron, which had served in World War I at the HMS Daedalus training facility. An extra ghostly face appears in the photo. In back of the airman positioned on the top row, fourth from the left, can clearly be seen the face of another man. It is said to be the face of Freddy Jackson, an air mechanic who had been accidentally killed by an airplane propeller two days earlier. His funeral had taken place on the day this photograph was snapped. Members of the squadron easily recognized the face as Jackson’s. It has been suggested that Jackson, unaware of his death, decided to show up for the group photo.

There are scant details in such entries, but enough to start doing some basic investigation. One of the first things I wanted to understand was when and where the photo was taken. Most of the stories being repeated in the echo-chamber of paranormal-themed Internet pages included the phrase “aboard the HMS Daedalus.”

HMS Daedalus

At the time this photo was taken, the name HMS Daedalus was not attached to a ship, but to a training facility. That facility has now been renamed RNAS Lee-on-Solent. It is an airfield in the south of England which has changed hands between the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS) a few times since being established in 1916. Many of the stories regarding this photo mention that it was taken at the end of WWI. If the date of the photography is accurate, then the base would have been in RAF control when the photo was taken. The base itself had been turned over to the RAF in April of 1918, and armistice day came on November 11, 1918. There are a variety of service uniforms accounted for in the photo as well. It’s a bit confusing—as wartime events can be. At any rate, the people in the photo had been involved with seaplane training and activity during the war. They used Bristol Bailey Short 150 and 225 pontoon planes. You can read more about their equipment and see some interesting photos related to the base here.

Sir Victor Goddard

The photo is called “Goddard’s Squadron.” Some articles refer to the photo as first being published in 1975. A little research turned up that Sir Robert Victor Goddard KCB, CBE, published a book that year titled Flight Towards Reality in which the photograph is (to the best of my knowledge) first described in print. I purchased a copy hoping to see the full photo because most of the versions on the web are cropped and enhanced. I was also hoping more information would be detailed. There is more story detail, but there was not a copy of the photo in the book. Here’s what Goddard has to say about the photograph:

I have a photograph in front of me, taken at Cranwell officially by Bassano’s at the time of Armistice after the First World War. It shows a group of airmen, airwomen and officers, some hundreds of them, in various uniforms, RNAS and Army, RFC and RAF, ATS and Women’s Naval Service, all my contemporaries and one my friend. [see Capel] The photograph is typical of all the chaos of transition from the two old separate Services, into the Royal Air Force, which then was still quite new and unfamiliar. The RAF had not by then been lifted up into its corporate consciousness of entity and destiny.

The Squadron, of which the photograph was taken, had no future; it was to be disbanded and almost everyone then photographed was also in transition back to that less authoritarian life which they called “Civvy Street.”

But one was otherwise.

When the group photograph was put up on the noticeboard so that those who wanted copies could write their names below, those who scanned the photograph identifying friends then saw—or they were prompted then to see—the face of Freddy Jackson, air mechanic, in the topmost row. Capless and smiling, his face being partly hidden by another, his expression seemed to say, “My goodness me—I nearly failed to make it! … They didn’t wait, or leave a place for me, the blighters!”

Well, there he was, and no mistake, although a little fainter than the rest. Indeed he looked as though he was not altogether there; not really with the group, for he alone was capless, smiling, all the rest were serious and set and wearing service caps. Most had not long returned from Church Parade and marching in a military funeral. For Freddy Jackson had, upon that very spot—the Squadron tarmac—three days before, walked heedlessly into the whirling propeller of an aeroplane. He had been killed stone dead instantly. He, evidently, was still quite unaware of it.

No, that is not a very rare event. There have been several of such unsought records brought into my experience. What is somewhat unusual, to say the least, is the official photograph, and some two hundred witnesses who knew; also the certainty that there had been no hanky-panky in the dark room. Not only would Bassano’s not have dared to fake it; the negative was scrutinized for faking and was found to be untouched. (Goddard, 91–92)

In the text it says “see Capel” but when I went to the book’s index and looked for Capel, it referred me back to page 91. As I mentioned, there is no photo in the edition I was able to obtain, and no indication that any edition of the book had a photo. It is possible that at the same time the book came out in 1975 there were news stories about the photograph and they were printed, but I have not been able to find them online and unfortunately can’t afford to go to England to do proper library searches there. (Although, if anyone wants to fund me for an expensive and likely fruitless jaunt to that green and pleasant land, I’m game. I’ve got more library “to do” items for England than I do proper tourism.)

According to the BBC’s website, the majority of the negatives from Bassano’s famous photography studio are now part of the British National Portrait Gallery. It would be interesting to know if this squadron photo is in that collection. Taking the research back to the primary material might be informative.

Bobbie Capel

Which brings us to Bobbie Capel, the woman mentioned by Sir Victor Goddard in his 1975 book. Capel was stationed at HMS Daedalus during WWI and served as a Women’s Royal Naval Service (WREN) driver for 18 months. She is pictured in the photograph 2nd row, fourth from the right. She lived a long life and was 97 years old in 1996 when she her neighbor and friend, Mr. John Roberts, tried to help her solve the mystery of the photo. The British publication Navy News had run a story on the training station HMS Daedalus and he wrote them a letter gently chiding them for not mentioning the role WRENS played at the base, and sharing the photo and story of the squadron. He asked if any other surviving people from the base with memories of the incident might come forward. Navy News published his letter and did ask for anyone with information to come forward, but I was unable to find any further information emerging from that inquiry.

The Photo

The story of the photograph was picked up by several papers in 1996. I contacted Mr. Roberts and he was kind enough to send me a collection of related clippings and a copy of the photo as well. Unfortunately because it is a print-out of a scan of the original, it has lost some of its details. At least one person is clipped off on the right hand side of the photo. But you can see quite a few details in the photo. The servicemen (and women) are posed for a formal group shot. They appear to be on a tiered bleacher of some sort and the ground in the foreground is wet. (That is an inference, but the bleacher is not actually visible.) Coats and hats are worn and on the front row subjects sit on a roll of what appears to be some kind of tarp. I assume this to prevent them from sitting on wet ground. Behind them stands a wooden building with sliding wooden doors.

On the back row, behind the fourth man from the left, is the ghostly face. At a glance, it appears to be the kind of partial image one gets on a long film exposure when someone leaves the shot. The face does appear to show enough forehead to make it clear that he(?) is not wearing a hat or service cap. Some have suggested there is nowhere he could be standing, but two places to the right you will see a couple of people who appear to be standing behind what would otherwise be the back row. Their presence suggests at least a possible explanation to me.

This is just conjecture—but it might be that out of the 80 or so folks in the shot one of them forgot to put on their hat. The photo is about to be taken—in fact the film begins to be exposed, but the poor fellow realizes he’s dropped or failed to don his cap. If he dropped it and bent to get it, perhaps by the time he stood again the exposure was up and all we are left with is a faint partial exposure of his face? It’s the kind of innocent action that can ruin a shot, but because he is in the back row he might not be noticed by anyone else. I would expect most people to be focused on the camera and camera operator.

Except what about the tragic story of Freddy Jackson?

Who was Freddy Jackson?

One aspect of the story that seemed ripe for examination was whether there was indeed a Freddy Jackson who died just a few days before the end of the war. Both Capel and Goddard seem to agree on this. According to a Fortean Times article about the photo, Bobbie Capel had “no doubt that the face peeping out from the back row is Jackson.” She herself could think of no explanation for the anomalous image other than it being a ghost.

This is another one of those times when the amount of time, money and effort I put into an investigation probably exceeds what my family “investigation budget” should be. I bought access to several online geneology search engines, ultimately finding the right database to look for all the Brits with similar names who died in WWI. I found 26 similar names and only one direct match to “Freddie Jackson.” Here is a link to a spreadsheet with that data.

There is a Frederick William Jackson who died October 30, 1918. That is just a few days before the November 11, 1918 date of the photo. However, that particular Freddy Jackson died in an infirmary of heart failure after being discharged in March of 1918. And he was a marine artilleryman, not an airman of the RAF or RNAS.

It is not fair to say that this disproves the existence of a Freddy Jackson at HMS Daedalus, but it does make me wonder if the story is literally true. The military keep detailed records, and this incident happened at the very end of the war.  If the story is accurate, then Freddy Jackson should be listed in the records I pulled.

Of course it could be that both Capel and Goddard got “Jackson’s” name wrong. I have not been able to find an online source that lets me see the general personnel records of HMS Daedalus such that I could search for specific death dates at the base, but that would be the kind of resource needed to definitively say whether or not any Freddy Jackson (or other name for that matter) walked into a moving propeller within a week of the end of the war. If such a person did exist, I suspect based on my research that he was not named Freddy Jackson.

Is it a ghost?

As much as I love looking at ghost photos and trying to figure out what’s going on in them, such photos are simply not good evidence of the supernatural or continued consciousness. The history of photography is a history of lies, both deliberate and accidental. “The camera does not lie” is one of the most pervasive myths about photography. From early “spirit photography” to the Cottingley Fairies, to UFO photos to airbrushed models in magazines to the development of digital editing tools like photoshop, photography has always had an element of artifice to it. People stage the photos and groom the set and crop and color—and that’s just the on-purpose stuff. Every kind of reflection, lens flare, double exposure, dust mote, motion blur or other mundane artifact get subjected to the human need to find meaningful patterns. In this case I think there is no question that what we’re seeing is a real human face, but only partially exposed compared to the rest of the subjects.

I found no evidence of a deliberate hoax. It seems more likely that a photographic error has been interpreted as a ghost. While Goddard describes folks gathering around to look at the photo and talk about poor Freddy Jackson, it seems more likely that such an astonishing story would have been released to the media at the time it was taken rather than being mentioned in a book with no pictures some 50 years later.

Bobbie Capel certainly seemed sincere in her belief about the nature of the photo, but she was in her 90s before being compelled to come forward with the image to dissect it. Not so with Sir Victor Goddard.

Goddard and the paranormal

While Goddard had risen quite high in the military ranks, he effectively had a second career as a paranormal enthusiast after retiring. His book Flight Towards Reality is largely a collection of thoughts about the nature of the spirit, ESP, and continued consciousness. He was a strong promoter of spirituality and alternative modes of healing.

A film was made about Goddard’s brush with death, entitled The Night My Number Came Up (watch clip on YouTube). According to the story, Goddard overheard someone talking about a dream they’d had which involved the pilot of a Dakota plane with a particular passenger set having trouble with ice and crashing. By coincidence(?) Goddard was flying such a plane and before long came to have the same passengers as described in the dream. When his plane did develop ice problems and crash, he was able to avoid the fate of the crew in the dream story because he’d been forewarned.

Goddard’s name also comes up in regards to a story involving time travel. During a flight in cloudy weather in 1935 he became disoriented.  He tried to find his bearings and eventually traveled through a strange cloud formation and saw a strange airbase. He knew where he was now by the sight of the base, but the airfield had strangely colored planes and of a type he did not recognize. Using his new position information he was able to travel safely to his destination. Later, after long considering the strange colors of the planes and their unusual types, he concluded he must have gone through some kind of time-warp a few years into the future.

In short, it seems that Sir Victor Goddard had a mind quite open to the wildest possibilities. I’m sure he was a colorful companion and I don’t mean to demean him when I suggest that one common feature of all his stories is that he told and retold them and discussed them with others for years before setting them to paper. Memories are quite malleable and certainly subject to more and more modifications the longer one ponders and replays them.

As interesting his stories are, they fail to provide any proof of the paranormal. Moreover, they imply that while Goddard took many flights over England, it was in flights of fancy that he was most adept in his later years. None of these comments or opinions diminish the fact that Goddard had an amazing military career and was a hero to his country. His obituary chronicles some of the many achievements of his remarkable life.


From the skeptical position, my research has found little to support the story that there was a real Freddy Jackson who died at HMS Daedalus just prior to the end of WWI. If there was no Freddy Jackson, what else about the story may be wrong? And even if there were a Freddy Jackson, we don’t have an photos of him (yet?) by which we could compare and thus at least test the broad strokes outline of the story.

As scientific evidence, photographs are worthless in evaluating the existence of ghosts; however, as windows into a world of spine-chilling contemplation, they’re priceless. Researching the facts behind such photos is, to me, a deeply satisfying exercise that leads to a spiderweb of interesting historical discoveries.

If you like looking at alleged ghost photos I would highly recommend Dr. Richard Wiseman’s ghost photo blog. While he’s finished his work there, it is a fascinating site not only for the photos, but to see how people of various backgrounds interpret the same images in such different ways.


Thanks to Karen Stollznow and Ben Radford for their assistance with this research, and thanks to my wife for making it possible for me to do this kind of investigation work and still get everything else done in our hectic lives. A special thanks to John Roberts for kindly sending me so many clippings and the least-cropped version of the photo I’ve seen.

  1. Brugioni, Dino A. Photo Fakery: The History and Techniques of Photographic Deception and Manipulation. Dulles, VA: Brassey’s, 1999. Print.
  2. Goddard, Victor. Flight Towards Reality. London: Turnstone, 1975. Print.
  3. Nickell, Joe. Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation. Lexington: U of Kentucky, 2005. Print.
  4. “Snapshot Picks up Ship’s Crew Prop-chopped Chum.” Fortean Times (November, 1996): page 9. Print.

Addendum (February 3, 2015)
Plausible but uncertain.

A plausible but uncertain interpretation. CLICK TO ENLARGE

During my investigation I did consider the possibility that the ghostly image is that of the capped airman in the foreground. Comparing the two images side by side there are similarities. Here are two views of the two faces. When overlayed on one another, the composite face looks quite plausible as a match, but this is highly subjective because the partial face is less distinct and requires manipulation to darken and contrast it. I’m personally not comfortable saying that this is the same face, but it is somewhat plausible. How he could have donned his cap without creating motion blur is questionable—though an additional possibility is that the studio that put together the portrait made a composite image to correct for where subjects perhaps blinked in two or three takes? I suspect any of these explanations is more likely than this being Freddy Jackson. Because people have asked about this possibility, I thought I should show what I found in my examination.

—Blake Smith


Blake Smith

Blake Smith is the producer and host of MonsterTalk, an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. He’s had a lifelong interest in science and the paranormal and enjoys researching the strange and unusual. By day he’s a computer consultant and by night he hunts monsters. He is married and has children. Puns are intentional; don’t bother alerting the management. Read Blake’s other posts on this blog.

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