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Gremlins - A children's story or a sinister and deadly malfunction.

A familiar image of a Gremlin

A familiar image of a Gremlin

A wartime cartoon of Gremlins infesting an aircraft

A wartime cartoon of Gremlins infesting an aircraft

PRU unarmed Spitfire

PRU unarmed Spitfire

PRU unarmed Mosquito

PRU unarmed Mosquito

Sunderland Flying Boat

Sunderland Flying Boat

Avro Lancaster Bomber - suffered from Gremlins in the propellors.

Avro Lancaster Bomber - suffered from Gremlins in the propellors.

Just a reminder of Herman Goring's empty pledge on the side of a Lancaster bombers raid tally.

Just a reminder of Herman Goring's empty pledge on the side of a Lancaster bombers raid tally.

An American war time poster

An American war time poster

Many adults and children will know of “Gremlins” only as fictitious, malicious, elf like creatures, which were the subject of a children’s book written by Roald Dahl and published by Walt Disney, in 1942.

However, far from being a nice little children’s story the term “Gremlin” was a far more sinister description of life threatening unexplained faults and problems affecting aircraft, in particular, during WW2 and later and experienced by Roald Dahl during his career as an RAF officer. Such was the increasing effect on morale of both aircrews and civilians he decided to write a series of stories in which Gremlins became just naughty elves and helped the Allied forces against the Axis.

Although mentioned, on and off since the 1920s the term first commonly cropped up in 1940 and the aircrew of PRU (Photographic Reconnaissance Unit) aircraft discussed them quite frequently as the cause of engine, structural and other serious mechanical problems. At this period in the war Britain stood alone and even serious problems had to be tackled with a certain humour, otherwise it was all too easy to become depressed with a general loss of morale. Wartime “barrack room poets” would often make up humorous ditties and the problems of the Gremlins were not exempt.

The following was to be found pinned up in many mess halls all over the world.

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)

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And its 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 ones will wiggle your wing tips,

Male ones will muddle your maps,

Green ones will guzzle your glycol,

Females will flutter your flaps.

Pink ones 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.

Anon - RAF slang

The actual word "gremlin" is believed to come from an old English word “gremian” or “greme” meaning "to vex" or "annoy". The word Gremlin was first noted in 1929 in a poem published in the Aeroplane.. However, it didn’t actually pass into aviation slang until later when it was used to describe unexplained mechanical problems occurring in RAF aircraft - in particular, its high-altitude Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU).using specially modified Spitfires and Mosquitos. The reports were of seeing "little beings" dancing on their wings or flying around their planes.

Until officially reported by RAF pilots the first gremlins were allegedly encountered by these photo reconnaissance units (PRUs), whilst flying at very high altitudes and were initially attributed to hallucinations caused by oxygen starvation. The aircraft were flying at far greater altitudes than their design capability and to achieve this every last ounce of weight had to be removed. All armour and guns were removed to increase speed and endurance, all joints in the airframe were taped over, including redundant gun ports, to reduce turbulence and some aircraft were even wax polished. The engines were specially tuned to give maximum performance and deal with the rarefied atmosphere when flying at great altitudes. Apart from roundels and serial numbers the aircraft were most often painted simply in a matt non reflective light overall blue or pink. The only form of defence these aircraft had was speed, climb rate and altitude. The pilots were pretty uncomfortable too, having no heating as waste heat from the engine/s was routed to the camera bay to keep the shutters functioning. Pilots became very superstitious and probably more susceptible to the Gremlin tales. They were never assigned to a single aircraft and would often use a different aircraft for each reconnaissance flight. After America joined the war, similar reports were received from their pilots and the allied forces began to suspect some trickery from the Germans. However, unofficial reports filtered through that Luftwaffe pilots were suffering the same thing and events became more sinister and supernatural activity was suspected.

This was sufficient to raise questions in peoples mind about previous unexplainable aviation mysteries, not those that were just unusual but those surrounded by such circumstances only the supernatural or even alien intervention could be the only explanation.

At about the start of the Second World War in 1939 “Something that defies explanation happened during a flight in the late summer of 1939” and to this day the incident is shrouded in secrecy.

Apparently a US military transport plane left the Marine naval Air Force Base in San Diego at 1530hrs and its thirteen man crew were making a routine flight to Honolulu. Three hours later, with the plane over the Pacific Ocean, a garbled distress signal was received during which the radio cut out. After some while the aircraft re-appeared having turned around and limped back to base and making an emergency landing. Emergency and Ground crew members surrounded the aircraft as it stopped rolling but when they boarded, they were horrified to find twelve dead men. The aircraft was flown by the co-pilot, who, although badly injured, had stayed alive long enough to bring the plane back to base but alas, within a few minutes, he too was dead. Each of the crew had been severely injured, with gaping wounds and chillingly the pilot and co-pilot had emptied the magazines of their .side arms at something leaving the empty shell cases scattered on the floor of the cockpit. A bad, sulphur like odour filled the inside of the plane and the exterior of the fuselage was torn and badly damaged, in a way not previously seen. Those that entered the aircraft to tend to the dead came down with a strange skin infection. The military hushed up the incident and despite pressure released nothing for fifteen years, until a witness came forward. Despite modern techniques the mystery of that afternoon has never been resolved or admitted. The above story has been mentioned on several occasions in articles discussing flying dragons or similar mythological beasts, hence its inclusion in discussions re Gremlins.

There were several incidents reported of Avro Lancaster, Lincoln and Halifax bombers either crashing or getting into serious trouble when the propellers of all four engines feathered when only a button for one was pressed. The electrical circuits of all aircraft in service were repeatedly checked but none could be made to reproduce this fault - until the next time.

In America the Government became quite concerned over the amount of unaccountable damage caused and the risk to life and compiled a “Strange Occurrences to Aircraft Report.”. In the UK each month the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) collates all the Mandatory Occurrence Reports (MORs) that they have received from the UK registered airlines or private pilots. These are reports on matters that affect flight safety and are then handled by the CAA. During 2010 - 2012 there were 26 incidents of crew becoming ill or incapacitated and being grounded, in most cases no clue to the cause or incident was given in the report.

Gremlins became the province of mainly the air forces of the world and particularly the RAF and other allied nations. They were discussed quite openly in messes all over the world and although not commonly visible their presence was acutely felt. They seem to take more than one form and their behaviour ranged from mildly cheeky to extremely dangerous and malevolent. According to the geographical location of the airbase they took names such as Spandule or Ice-Gremlin for those encountered over 10,000ft, who were considered as the most dangerous. The normal Gremlins were found further down and were known as the Mediterranean Gremlins as well as various Gremlins named after airbases and many, many others. They became particularly active in the Middle East affecting flying boat squadrons and whispering unsettling comments to pilots and running around on the wings and fuselage. In fact feelings ran quite high and anyone suspected of seeing Gremlins prior to take-off were grounded.

Although, as mentioned, the actions of Gremlins were mostly troublesome or even deadly, there are cases reported of them entering tail gunners’ turrets to provide warmth and companionship and even in a tiny majority of cases to offer help in the case of emergencies.

There were few reports of female Gremlins, with most being male, although they did seem to have girlfriends called finellas or nicknamed Widgets.

Can we draw any conclusions from the information recorded ? Are we talking about the imagination of a children’s book author, of hallucinations of pilots suffering oxygen starvation or stimulant drugs or perhaps of aliens from another world ? Either way we can be sure that Gremlins had and have a real effect on the lives of humans and will continue to do so.

Perhaps we should try and fight fire with fire by using the power of a charm or amulet. However much you may scoff at such things there is a certain comfort in the feeling you have something that could counteract their evil influence.

Gravesend Fighter Station WW2

  • Gravesend Airfield and WW2 fighter base
    In 1933 a tiny provincial airport was built at Gravesend. It grew gradually until WW2 was declared when it expanded rapidly into a front line fighter station. It was the home for many nationalities that flew as RAF. We look at a brief history.

© 2013 Peter Geekie


Nell Rose from England on September 03, 2013:

Thanks Peter, yes I can quite believe it, I always think that there must be a reason why people believe these things in the first place, spooky stuff does happen.

Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on September 03, 2013:

Thank you Nell,

I think, speak to anyone in the armed forces about such things and they probably have a tale to tell. My fathers Mosquito crashed on take-off one day when both engines cut at the same time. He was quite badly burned as the tanks were full. The aircraft was examined later and no apparent fault could be found.

I was in the RN (obviously a long while after the war) but sailors are just as superstitious as airmen. I remember times when we were closed down for semi-silent running and hearing the tap, tap, tapping on the hull as if something outside was trying to get in !

Do I believe ? - you bet I do.

Kind regards Peter

Nell Rose from England on September 03, 2013:

Now that has to be the most interesting hub for me today! I can honestly say I have never heard that story before! My uncle flew in a Lancaster bomber in the war, he was a Sergeant and was the plotter, they came down over Scotland and ended up in one of the rivers, sadly he died. So this story, whether hallucinations, imagination or real is fascinating, voted up and shared! nell

Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on June 30, 2013:

Thanks for your comment Kate. Although I'm ex RN I was brought up in an RAF family and remember my father talking about Gremlins affecting his aircraft (his squadron was PRU).

This was a very confused little boy when Disney came out with his cartoons.

Kind regards Peter

Kate McBride from Donegal Ireland on June 30, 2013:

This was a very interesting read Peter-well researched and put together. Thanks for sharing it.


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