Monday, October 18, 2010


My generation of war babies came just before the Boomers. I can just barely recall the ecology of homefront shortages. My mother grew vegetables and put up many jars of preserves. Children would flatten metal cans for recycling and collect Halloween pennies for the copper they contained. The war comics showed evil looking yellow-faced men with slanty eyes, buck teeth, and eyeglasses: the Japs or Nips. Germans looked more like normal human beings. The comic I most clearly recall was not about the enemy but about fighter pilots on our side. It showed funny little people who made things go wrong with the pilots' planes. Doing a little research, I find that it was Roald Dahl's Gremlins of 1943. It's described as his first children's book. He sold it to Disney who intended to produce an animated version for theaters but never did.

Here are images from it. Most are from The exceptions are noted.[1]


Gremlin Gus and Pilot Officer Gus



Fifinella, female of the species

The adult males are gremlins, children are widgets

Back cover.


A gremlin named Gus is the star of the story. He's first seen as a pilot is maneuvering to attack German bombers in the Battle of Britain. The pilot looks out his canopy and sees this little man drilling a hole in his wing. The pilot, also named Gus, eventually learns that gremlins are angry about the destruction of their forest home to build an aircraft factory. Gus the pilot turns the gremlins to friends when his Hurricane fighter comes apart over the English Channel and, in saving a gremlin from going down with the wreckage, he's able to convince the little guy that they should join forces against the attacking Germans.

The author of a wikipedia article on the book tells the rest: "Eventually, the gremlins are re-trained by the Royal Air Force to help repair, rather than sabotage, aircraft, and they also help restore Gus to active flight status after a particularly severe crash. The book also contains picturesque details about the ordinary lives of gremlins: baby gremlins, for instance, are known as widgets, and females as fifinellas, a name taken from the great 'flying' filly racehorse Fifinella, that won both the Epsom Derby and Epsom Oaks in 1916, the year Dahl was born."

It's hard to be sure back so many years, but I think what made the little book memorable for me was the treatment of human error (mistakes made during aircraft manufacture, maintenance, or operation) as the action of bug-like creatures. Apparently, pilots had been doing this for quite a while before Dahl wrote the story. A blog post, in Spanish, explains in detail.[2]

The blog post includes this image from a letter dated November 1943 from a fighter pilot to his girlfriend.


An Australian airman tells this story:[3]
I first heard about Gremlins when I was eight years old. That was in 1940, and the Battle of Britain was being fought over Kent. My old Uncle Alf told me about them. He picked up this info from an RAF pilot he met in our village pub - the pilot was recuperating from a crash caused by Gremlins in the fuel system of his Spitfire.

Gremlins were apparently a British manifestation, although there is evidence that some may have migrated to Australia after the war. Interestingly, they seemed to be peculiar to only British designed aircraft as there were no reports of American gremlins causing problems.

They were first discovered by RAF pilots of the Photographic Reconnaissance Units who flew unarmed Spitfires and Mosquitoes at great heights on photographic missions over enemy territory. Their presence caused great concern, so much so that an alert order was sent to all RAF units. It was in the form of verse which was published in RAF bulletins, and often sung to a familiar tune. It went like this:

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 your 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 aerilon 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.
This is a photo of a Supermarine Spitfire Mk XIX fighter in high-altitude reconnaissance mode — armor and armaments removed to increase range. One source says "the high altitude flights tended to be very cold as the heat from the engines were re-routed away from the pilot to the cameras to keep them warm. No one plane was assigned to one pilot, pilots would often fly a different Recce Spit each time they took off and this supposedly started the 'Gremlins' tale."

This picture comes from a gremlin story published in an RAF monthly magazine in 1942.


This shows Roald Dahl as Flight Lieutenant in 1942.



Some sources:

The Gremlins article in wikipedia

9 de noviembre de 2009 El origen de los Gremlins on a blog in Spanish called The Lost View

The Gremlins (1943) A novel by Roald Dahl on fantasticfiction

Disney, The Gremlins, and World War 2 on a blog called meine kleine fabrik

The airplane gremlin legend on yonderblog

"The Gremlins: The Lost Walt Disney Production" finally finds its way back into bookstores

The Gremlins on Amazon

Biography for Roald Dahl on

Yet More Swag on Panabasis, journal of the Janus Museum

First Edition The Gremlins Auction

DO YOU BELIEVE IN GREMLINS?, Stories of 10 Squadron RAAF in Townsville, by John Laming

"Gremlins" Originated from Spitfire Pilots?, discussion on rec.aviation.military



[1] I'm reproducing these images under fair use provisions of copyright law. If my assertion of this right isn't correct I'll take them down.

[2] : El origen de los Gremlins. Here are extracts from a computer translation:
9 de noviembre de 2009
El origen de los Gremlins

A little history

The term "gremlin" was first used in the jargon of the airmen of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Malta, Middle East and India, and the first written reference exists one appears in a poem published in the journal Aeroplane, in Malta (April 1929).

The belief of the small monsters sabotaged aerial equipment became popular during World War II among the men of the RAF, particularly within the staff of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) of the RAF Coastal Command. The creatures were responsible for all the inexplicable accidents that occurred during the flight, and were supposed side with the Germans, a fact that was questionable, since research revealed that they suffered similar mishaps. In a letter dated November 1943, a pilot included this charming picture [shown above] in a letter he wrote to his girlfriend.

The gremlins were causing problems in the same way on both sides, not taking sides in the conflict, acting only in their own interests. They made an easy way to pass the buck or put mishaps down to bad luck rather than human error. As folklore expert John Hazen said, "the gremlin has been the product of the era of aerial machinery." Many of the pilots began to carry small rag dolls emulating "gremlins kind" as protection against the harmful attacks of the evil beings.


An early reference to the Gremlin appears in an article by Hubert Griffith in Contact, the monthly publication of the RAF on 18 April 1942, where testimonies of pilots described as beings who "appeared from the clouds and fell sharply on the nose of the plane" even setting different kinds of gremlins (the ordinary kind and another acting at the altitude of 10,000 feet, the most dangerous).


While the text highlights the existence of these stories, their existence had long been known going back to the desperate defense put up by Spitfires at the Battle of Britain in 1940. Other sources claim that there is evidence going back to the First World War, but there is no graphic record of this.
[3] DO YOU BELIEVE IN GREMLINS?, Stories of 10 Squadron RAAF in Townsville, by John Laming

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