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Published Fortnightly

April 18, 1942

Number 13


The Gremlin Question


It is extraordinary to me to think that I had lived so long in the world without realizing the existence of a whole section of its inhabitants - the Gremlins.

I am no longer operational aircrew, but I did three hundred hours war flying in the last war, and never heard the creatures mentioned. I was with a Coastal Command squadron for the first six months of the present war - then in France on an odd sort of racket - then in various RAF training stations, for almost a year on end. Still I never heard a hint of that strange word or of those strange little people.

Quite by chance, I found myself in Northern Russia with an RAF fighter wing. Gremlins suddenly became an accepted fact of life. They were discussed quite freely on every hand. Their merits and de-merits were argued about - just as though they were actual people, sent to try us.

It was late at night in our room of the gaunt officers' barrack-block that we called the "Kremlin"- (fitting rhyme to Gremlin) that I first heard the Gremlins mentioned. The two fighter-boys who shared the room with me were deep in discussion about them. In my capacity as Wing-Adjutant it seemed to me that I ought to know everything that was going on, and I asked about the Gremlins.

They explained them to me as one explains something to a half-witted child - as one explains something that is already perfectly well known to everybody else, without wishing to hurt the half-witted child's feelings.

One of the pilots said: " Oh, they get out of clouds and run up your wing-tip - the wrong wing-tip." The other added: "If you're taxiing, they run down the nose of the machine and tip you up and you prang a prop, if nothing worse."

That was about as far as I got that night. A new subject was opened up for me. The "they" was significant. They run out of clouds. They tip you up on your nose, etc. Obviously they were a sort of collective unity. They operated in droves or swarms. Was it hundreds of them, or at least scores, that " ran out of clouds" or in landing, upset the balance of the aircraft? One imagined them about the size of mice, or at biggest, the procession of rats led by the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Next night I heard from Mickey Rook, in casual conversation in the Mess, about a new type of Gremlin - the Spandule or Ice-Gremlin. "He takes over at 10,000 feet. Gremlins proper only operate lower down. They can't get the height." Further, of the Spandule, from all the pilots in the Wing, "He's a pig; he's the one you've got to watch. He'll do you down if he can." But still it seemed a collective type, quite small, operating in mass rather than individually.

Since those days, a mountain of documentary evidence seems to have accumulated. Apparently there are Mediterranean Gremlins as well as East Fifeshire Gremlins. Pilots of every branch and Command of the Service seem to be on nodding terms with them. Their habits are a matter of day-to-day discussion. There has grown up a mass of Gremlin-lore, and even of Gremlin literature. The R.A.F., always by far the most inventive of the Services, seems to have taken the Gremlin - if not to its heart - at least into its inner consciousness. (Nor are Gremlins, it appears, by any means always malevolent. "They can be playful. They have a sense of humour even if a distorted sense of humour." My authority is again Mickey Rook.) There have been Gremlins known to come to one's aid in moments of emergency, though this latter type seems to be in an extremely small minority.

It will be noted that even with the evidence now to be tendered, very few members of air-crews claim to have actually seen a Gremlin. The outward and apparent shape still remains a mystery. The tribe of air gunners said to he in the habit of actually inviting a gremlin into their rear-turret, must obviously envisage him as something fairly big, say, knee-high to an air-gunner for the presence of a single Gremlin to provide companionship and warmth. On the other hand, those alleged to be airborne, cross-legged between the knees of a seagull, must be almost flyweights, for the payload of a seagull is comparatively small.


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 you will 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 learned on the Link
Won't help you evade a Gremlin,
Though you boost and you dive and you fink.
White ones will wiggle your wingtips,
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 in your tyres.
That is the tale of the Gremlins,
Told by the P.R.U.,
(P)retty (R)uddy (U)nlikely to many
But fact, none the less, to the few."


(A further thought here comes in. Who could actually draw the outline of a Gremlin? Is he a "presence" rather than a personality, a spirit than an embodiment? Are there any volunteers for the task? The Editor, [of the RAF Journal] as I have his word for it, would welcome anything that sheds further light on the matter.)

A correspondent recently wrote to the Editor of the Journal: "Gremlins, the mischief-makers of the air, are encountered in the flying history of nearly every R.A.F. pilot. Their pranks are responsible f6r a large number of accidents which would otherwise be inexplicable except as lapses on the part of the pilots.

Gremlins are believed to have originated in the Middle East where, long before the war, they made themselves something of a pest to many pilots, especially those of flying boats. They were reported on wingtips, on floats, on propellers, and in the aircraft. One particularly virulent species of Gremlin, apparently living in the clouds, had a habit of entering aircraft in bad visibility. When the pilot had been flying for some time in cloud, without being able to catch a glimpse of the ground, the Gremlin would skip on to his shoulder and whisper in his ear: 'You silly fathead - you're upside down!

Of course the pilot wasn't, but it unnerved him and made him jumpy."

Now fresh evidence is available on the Gremlin mystery, which is one of the most fruitful subjects for discussion in any R.A.F. Mess.

Coastal Command squadrons have gone into the matter with some care, and a contribution was published in a Royal Air Force document from a squadron specializing in photographic reconnaissance. They put their testimony into verse, thus:

From Gibraltar, pilots of another Coastal Command squadron send the following report:

It is believed that the Gremlin found in the neighbourhood of the Rock is, generally speaking, of the hairy-footed variety with extremely large, rudimentary ears fastened to the head (in the case of the male) by a peculiar scaffolding of gristle about eight feet long. The abdomen is pierced with triangular holes through which the wind whistles when in flight."

The report adds that it is very important to ensure that no one enters an aircraft in a Gremlined condition, i.e., he must not be seeing Gremlins before he is airborne.

The most recent evidence, gathered in the last few weeks, comes from a small and hard-working body of eminent Fife Gremlinologists.

"In our opinion," they write, "the creatures observed in the Gibraltar area can scarcely be called true Gremlins. The are probably to be regarded as belonging to a distantly related species peculiar to the warmer conditions obtaining in the Mediterranean zone.

Some, but not all Gremlins, possess the faculty of sitting motionless on the wings of an aircraft until it is close to the British coast. They then slide down the wireless directional beam, reach the aerodrome ahead of the aircraft, and jerk the runway from under its wheels, the pilot being unable to tell whether he is on his course 6r his elbow.

The second point is even more serious. It has come to our notice that Gremlins are in the habit of creeping in beside air-gunners in a confiding and ingratiating manner which the simple-minded air-gunner finds hard to resist. Air-gunners have even been known to invite Gremlins into the turret for' the sake of extra warmth. Air-gunners - is it worth it?

No sooner does the pilot adjust his elevators to counter the increased load in the tail than the cunning Gremlins rush forward into the nose of the aircraft with the obvious intention of causing it to dive into the sea. Gremlins have also been known to incite seagulls to attack aircraft. In this form of indirect attack, the Gremlin sits cross-legged between the seagull's wings until a collision becomes inevitable, when he abandons the seagull, gains cloud cover, and, chuckling throatily, sets course for base. All aircrews are advised to keep a sharp look-out for seagulls suspected of harbouring Gremlins. The attitude of Gremlins has recently changed from hostile neutral to hostile non-participant, verging at times to one of hostile-non-belligerency. The moment is approaching when the Gremlins should ask themselves-Are they for us or against us? Or what?

Perhaps, after all, the curious subject of Gremlins is one for Mr. H. G. Wells. He should have invented them. He should have written stories about them. His very titles seem to fit in with the curious and evocative word,- " Mr. Gremlin Sees it Through," Gremlin and Peter," "An Outline of Gremlin Historv," " Tono-Gremlin," and, most sinister of' all, " The Shape of Gremlins to Come "

Or perhaps again there is a simpler solution. As Mark Sheldon, an Australian fighter-pilot, opined that night in the snow-bound Kremlin in North Russia-with a wealth of philosophy not usual with him:

"The whole thing is, they more or less reflect your mood: -if you fly carefully and well, they treat you good-if you fly badly, they act badly by you." One may let the matter rest there for the present. Click here to return to the Home Page.