When most people hear the word “gremlins,” the first image that may pop into their heads is that of the strange reptilian creatures from the 1984 Joe Dante film of the same name, where the titular little monsters run amok and cause chaos within a small town. However, what some people may not realize is that these were actually based upon allegedly real entities which, during the Second World War and even before, plagued pilots and aircraft crew with all manner of mischief as they battled in the skies during one of the bloodiest eras of human history. Here in the bloody skies of WWII, among the seemingly never-ending smoke, bomb blasts, strafing antiaircraft fire, buzzing enemy aircraft, and death, the crews of various aircraft from all sides were faced with a new enemy; bizarre impish beasts that were said to infest aircraft and seemed to want nothing more but to create havoc and bring them down from the clouds.
The origin of the modern term "gremlin" is disputed, but is often said to derive from the Old English word greme, which means to vex or annoy. It refers to a type of mischievous gnome-like imp or demon, typically said to be around a foot tall, which probably has its roots in the old folklore of goblins and fairies. The original early representation of these creatures was that of skilled craftsmen with a superhuman proficiency with machinery of all types, and they were once credited by some with helping mankind along with our technology, such as in the creation of the steam engine and even claims that they helped with Benjamin Franklin’s work with electricity. Yet for all of the benevolent early folklore associated with the impish creatures, it was their penchant for mischief and mayhem that they would become most known for.
The modern version of the gremlin as a malicious, trouble making hell raiser has its origins with British airmen, some of whom believed that there were miniature imps, gnomes, or fairies which seemed to show an intense interest in aviation and caused aircraft or navigational malfunctions. One of the first mentions of the creatures can be traced back to an early reference to them in the early 1900s in a British newspaper called the Spectator, in which it was written:
The old Royal Naval Air Service in 1917 and the newly constituted Royal Air Force in 1918 appear to have detected the existence of a horde of mysterious and malicious sprites whose whole purpose in life was…to bring about as many as possible of the inexplicable mishaps which, in those days as now, trouble an airman’s life.
The existence of such weird entities became truly popularized starting in 1923, when a British pilot crashed his plane into the sea and later reported that the accident had been caused by tiny creatures which had followed him aboard his plane and proceeded to create havoc aboard the aircraft, sabotaging the engine, messing around with the flight controls, and ultimately causing it to crash. The story spread, and it wasn’t long before other British pilots also began to complain of being harassed by similar miniature troll-like creatures with a mastery of technology and machinery, which caused engine failures, electrical malfunctions, communications shutdowns, bad landings, freak accidents, and pretty much anything else that could possibly ever go wrong with an aircraft.
Gremlins were said to engage in such a myriad of bad behavior as sucking the gas out of tanks through hoses, jamming radio frequencies, mucking up landing gear, blowing dust or sand into fuel pipes or sensitive electrical equipment, cutting wires, removing bolts or screws, tinkering with dials, knobs or switches, jostling controls, slashing wings or tires, poking or pinching gunners or pilots, banging incessantly on the fuselage, breaking windows, and a wide variety of other prankish acts. There were even pilots who claimed that the creatures had telepathic powers and could create realistic illusions in a victim’s mind, such as the appearance of the ground or a mountain emerging suddenly from the clouds. They were also sometimes reported to be seen sitting out upon the nose of the plane or the wings of aircraft in midflight tampering with the wings or even the engines. On occasion the gremlins were said to shout, giggle, whisper, growl, or otherwise make noise so as to distract aircraft crews, in particular gunners as they were lining up their sights on an enemy and pilots when performing maneuvers for which total concentration was a necessity. Such reports spread quickly through the ranks and by the end of the 1920s it seemed like any pilot who had ever had an aircraft problem of any kind had seen the things, and they were commonly reported throughout the Royal Air Force by pilots stationed in such far flung places as Malta, the Middle East, and India.
One of the most famous alleged gremlin accounts from this period was made by none other than the renowned American aviator, author, inventor, military officer, explorer, and social activist Charles Lindbergh as he was engaged in his historic nonstop solo flight over the Atlantic from New York to Paris in May of 1927. Lindbergh had been flying his single-engine single-seat plane Spirit of St. Louis from the Roosevelt Field in Garden City, NY to Le Bourget Field in Paris, France, which was to be an epic 3,600 mile (5,800 km), 33 and a half hour flight and the first ever of its kind. In the 9th hour of being airborne, Lindbergh reported that he had suddenly felt somewhat detached from reality and found himself surrounded by several vaporous, strange looking beings within the cramped confines of his tiny cabin, which spoke to him and demonstrated incredibly complex knowledge of navigation and flight equipment. Interestingly, in this case rather than cause mischief, Lindbergh said that the gremlins actually kept him alert and reassured him that he would remain safe on his journey. Lindbergh kept this bizarre experience to himself for years until the account was finally published in his 1953 book The Spirit of St. Louis. Interestingly, this would not be the only report of benevolent gremlin activity, as there were other accounts from time to time that told of the typically mischievous monsters helping pilots avert disasters or alerting them when to turn or change course or altitude, which showed there was more than one facet to whatever the things were.
The actual physical descriptions of gremlins varied rather wildly. In some cases they were described as being little elfish beings similar to humans, wearing bright red or green double-breasted frock coats, old fashioned hats with feathers, and pointed shoes. The skin color could be green, gold, pink, or red. Others gave the entities a more sinister appearance, saying that they looked animalistic, with hairy bodies, large, pointed ears, deep red or even glowing eyes, and horns. Still other reports speak of gremlins as having hairless grey skin, being vaguely reptilian in appearance, and having enormous mouths filled with pointy teeth. There were cases that said they looked like jackrabbits, bull terriers, or some combination of both. In some cases they were merely wispy entities seemingly composed of mist or smoke. Some accounts mention webbed hands and feet, fins, or bat-like wings. Size descriptions also varied considerably, with gremlins said to be anywhere between a mere 6 inches tall all the way up to three feet in height. In some cases, they were said to have large feet with suction cups or even leather shoes with hooks, both of which enabled them to walk about on the outside of aircraft or to hang upside down. One common trait in all reports is that through whatever means, gremlins were known to be able to adhere to the outer fuselage of planes and to withstand incredible temperature extremes, high altitudes, and violent winds.
Gremlins and their bothersome antics were reported throughout the 1920s and 30s, but perhaps the period of the most intense alleged gremlin activity was during the fierce fighting of World War II. Reports of gremlins were especially prolific among the UK's RAF (Royal Air Force) units, especially the high-altitude Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU), which flew perilous missions in unarmed, unarmored Spitfires and Mosquitoes at great heights on photographic missions over enemy territory. It was during these harrowing missions, when pilots operated in bitter, biting cold as heat was redirected to the cameras to keep them warm, that the little monster tricksters were regularly seen and blamed for all manner of otherwise inexplicable technical troubles and woes. In some cases, mechanical problems would arise only to mysteriously right themselves again as soon as the planes landed or the gremlins were gone.
The Battle of Britain, an enormous air campaign waged against the United Kingdom by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) during the summer and autumn of 1940 in particular saw many cases of reported gremlin activity, so much so in fact that the British Air Ministry even acknowledged the problem and made serious attempts to investigate the phenomenon. The Ministry even went as far as to have a service manual written up by a “Gremlorist,” Pilot Officer Percy Prune, which was an official document consisting of a list of the creatures’ exploits, how to placate or distract them, and various ways to avoid accidents due to their presence, such as not displaying bravado, arrogance or over confidence, which was thought to attract the creatures. There were also posters that warned of the malicious little monsters, as well as bulletins which often included the following ditty:
This is the tale of the Gremlins
As told by the PRU
At Benson and Wick and St Eval-
And believe me, you slobs, it's true.
When you're seven miles up in the heavens,
(That's a hell of a lonely spot)
And it's fifty degrees below zero,
Which isn't exactly hot.
When you're frozen blue like your Spitfire,
And you’re scared a Mosquito pink.
When you're thousands of miles from nowhere,
And there's nothing below but the drink.
It's then that you'll see the Gremlins,
Green and gamboge and gold,
Male and female and neuter,
Gremlins both young and old.
It's no good trying to dodge them,
The lessons you learnt on the Link
Won't help you evade a Gremlin,
Though you boost and you dive and you jink.
White one's will wiggle your wing tips,
Male one's will muddle your maps,
Green one's will guzzle your glycol,
Females will flutter your flaps.
Pink one's will perch on your perspex,
And dance pirouettes on your prop,
There's a spherical middle-aged Gremlin,
Who'll spin on your stick like a top.
They'll freeze up your camera shutters,
They'll bite through your aileron wires,
They'll bend and they'll break and they'll batter,
They'll insert toasting forks into your tyres.
And that is the tale of the Gremlins,
As told by the PRU,
(P)retty (R)uddy (U)nlikely to many,
But a fact, none the less, to the few.
At first this seemed to be a phenomenon completely unique to the Royal Air Force and it was often whispered among airmen that the gremlins were in league with the enemy, but it later became apparent that enemy aircraft were also suffering from the creatures’ tomfoolery and that they took no sides, taking equal glee in harassing both British and enemy aircraft alike. When the American Allies came to British shores, they too began to experience the strange phenomenon. American pilots and airmen typically described seeing strange creatures out on the wings of the aircraft, where they would fiddle around with the aileron, which is the hinged flight control surface on the wing that allows it to roll or bank. So persistent were the stories of gremlins fiddling and tampering with the aileron of American aircraft that the Americans often referred to the creatures as Yehudis, after a famous violinist of the time, because they were always fiddling.
One American Boeing B17 pilot during WWII known only as L.W. had a rather bizarre and harrowing experience with gremlins typical of these encounters while engaged in a combat mission. The man reported that as he was taking the enormous plane higher he could hear a strange sound coming from the engine and instruments on the panel in front of him started going haywire. When the confused pilot looked outside to his right he saw an freakish “entity” outside of the plane’s window latched onto the plane that was described as 3 feet tall, with abnormally long arms, grey hairless skin, deep red eyes, a gaping mouth full of teeth, and pointed ears with tufts of black hair at the ends like “owl ears,” just staring in at him from the wind and bitter cold beyond the glass. When the frightened pilot looked to the nose of the aircraft he was astonished to see yet another one of the creatures apparently dancing about out there and pounding away haphazardly at the fuselage. The pilot thought at first that he was perhaps hallucinating or experiencing disorientation, but he reported that he felt sharp and in control of his senses. The pilot said that the strange creatures appeared to be laughing maniacally, and that they gleefully cavorted about outside of his plane pulling on whatever they could get their clawed hands on, banging on the aircraft with all of their might, and obviously trying their best to bring the plane down. After a bit of maneuvering the pilot managed to shake the critters off of his plane, although he would later say he had no idea if they had fallen to their deaths or merely jumped to another plane. L.W. was apprehensive about telling anyone about the frightening ordeal, but when he told a gunner friend of his about it, the gunner reported having had a similar experience on a training mission just a few days before.
Interestingly, there is a rather bizarre incident pertaining to an American aircraft from 1939, before America’s participation in the war, which may or may not be related to gremlins but seems worth mentioning. Allegedly, a transport plane left the Marine naval Air Force Base in San Diego, California at around 3:30 in the afternoon in the late summer of 1939 on a routine flight to Honolulu with a crew of 13. Somewhere around three hours into the flight, it was reported that the aircraft made a sudden distress call, after which communications went dead. Despite the fact that its radio had gone completely silent, the plane managed to arrive back at its base, yet the way it limped in for a bumpy, sloppy emergency landing and the heavy damage on its exterior that almost looked like missile damage immediately worried the ground crew. As soon as the damaged plane had skidded to a halt on the runway, crews moved in to investigate. What they found would horrify them. An inspection of the craft’s interior uncovered the bodies of 12 of the plane’s crew, all of them displaying gruesome, gaping wounds of unknown origins. Further adding to the strangeness was the fact that the whole cabin reeked of a wretched sulfuric stench, and there were empty bullet shells strewn about the floor of the cockpit as well as the pilot and co-pilot’s empty firearms, indicating that the dead men had frantically fired at something. The only survivor was the co-pilot, who had managed to land the plane despite being severely wounded himself. He would die later at a hospital before having any chance to give an account of what had exactly happened aboard the doomed flight.
Reports of gremlins and their knack for hiding aboard planes to sabotage them persisted throughout WWII, from all sides and nations involved in the conflict, more often than not by experienced pilots and aircraft crew that were sober, level-headed and rational. What could have been at the heart of these accounts? What were all of these people seeing or experiencing? It is often pointed out that the lack of adequate pressurization of aircraft back in those days most likely led to hallucinations, which were then shaped by the stories of little trickster, prankish imps with a tendency to sabotage or damage machinery. There could also have been some element of “passing the buck” so to speak, or deflecting blame for human error by blaming accidents on these fantastical creatures. This could have helped build morale among the men, as it would have been more constructive to blame the gremlins for aircraft mishaps rather than accuse members of their own squadron.
Yet those who claim to have seen gremlins or to have been the victims of their attacks insist that they were no figment of the imagination and were in fact very real. Survivors of the war who have lived to tell the tale have no doubt in their minds that gremlins were a very real threat and that they were no mere folklore or spooky legend, adamantly refusing that all cases can be explained away by mere hallucinations or human error. Nevertheless, these sorts of reports largely fizzled out in the wake of the war’s end, and by the 1950s there was very little talk of gremlins among airmen, perhaps largely due to the fact that the military began to strictly discourage rumors or talk of the creatures, calling it unprofessional and morale inhibiting behavior. Most mention of gremlins nowadays in made half-jokingly, when an aircraft experiences trouble or if machinery breaks down or malfunctions for no apparent reason.
So was the gremlin phenomenon all just hallucinations, folklore, overactive imaginations, and tall tales that managed to spread out across aircraft crews of various nationalities to lodge itself squarely into contemporary myth? Or could there have been something else behind the phenomena? Could these have been somehow real creatures that gave air crews a new enemy to face in the heat of battle? If these gremlins were indeed real entities then what could they have been? Could these have been faeries, ghosts, demons, a real animal of some sort, aliens, or something from beyond our dimension? Whether they were real or not, gremlins were indeed very real to many of the brave men who served to risk their lives for their countries high in the treacherous skies of the Second World War. Perhaps next time you are flying in a plane that experiences a sudden technical difficulty or uncommon turbulence, you may just want to look under your seat or peer out of the window just to be sure. You just may see some gremlins peering right back.