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Thousands of feet above the earth, in the deep cold of high altitude and the silence of nothingness, save for the rush of the wind against man’s warbirds with their thundering engines, the childhood monsters emerged from the closet and the beasts arose from under the bed.
Sounds like the start of a horror movie, doesn’t it? In a way it was.
Long ago, in times of war, at high altitude, the creatures who evolved from these closet-monsters and under-bed-beasts became legend and were called gremlins.
Gremlins were maniacal creatures who were masters of technology and machinery with a propensity to create all manner of aircraft malfunctions.
I was familiar with the name “gremlin” from a young age from my father’s WWII tales of his B-17 nicknamed Tremblin’ Gremlin, but I never really considered the significance of the little creatures and how they were viewed by pilots until I ran across an entry about “The Mythical ‘Gremlins’” in my World War II Chronicle book. It read,
Faced with unexpected and seemingly inexplicable mechanical problems during WWII, RAF pilots added a supernatural, gnome-like creature to world folklore: the “gremlin.” Perhaps more than semi-seriously, pilots discussed gremlins, their mischievous expertise, and methods of placating and controlling them. Gremlins were nothing but a myth. But … they were said to often ride on wings, sometimes manipulating ailerons to tip the plane.
Riding on wings? Manipulating ailersons to tip the plane? That really struck a note with me because I had been immersed in researching the mechanical problems of the 384th Bomb Group’s B-17 Lazy Daisy, the B-17 that collided with my dad’s on September 28, 1944.
While reviewing mechanical issue after mechanical issue in the mission reports of that aircraft, I was leaning toward the thought that had B-17’s been covered by the lemon law in 1944, the 8th Air Force would have been due a refund for that ship.
But now, here was a better explanation than that the aircraft was a little too prone to mechanical problems. Lazy Daisy must have had a massive infestation of gremlins. And those gremlins may have boarded the plane in America, before she made her hop across the pond to England, because she experienced engine problems from her very first mission.
I’ll get to the Lazy Daisy’s specific problems in a follow-up post in a couple of weeks, but my research into gremlins made for such interesting reading, I wanted to learn more about them.
I learned that, contrary to the information in my World War II Chronicle book, it seems gremlins existed long before WWII. The British newspaper The Spectator reported,
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.
In 1923, a British pilot who crashed his plane into the sea blamed gremlins who followed him aboard, sabotaged the engine, and messed with the controls, causing the crash.
The story spread over the years among pilots, many of whom had their own gremlin encounters. Still pre-WWII, author and aviator Pauline Gover in her 1938 novel The ATA: Women with Wings, declared Scotland to be “gremlin country,” where the creatures liked to create havoc by cutting the wires of aircraft.
With the high-altitude flying of WWII came more reports of gremlins when something unexplainable went wrong, but most of these reports were written off as stress of combat, products of the imagination, or hallucinations of pilots flying at high altitude due to lack of adequate pressurization.
During WWII, the British Royal Air Force’s high-altitude Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU) flew perilous photographic missions in the bitter cold over enemy territory. These pilots regularly saw and blamed gremlins for all sorts of mechanical problems. Somehow, the mechanical issues would be gone as soon as the aircraft landed and the gremlins departed.
During the Battle of Britain in the summer and fall of 1940, so many pilots reported gremlin activity that the British Air Ministry acknowledged the problem and attempted to investigate. The Ministry tasked “Gremlorist” Percy Prune, a pilot officer, to write an official document. Prune’s resulting service manual listed the creature’s various known exploits, instructed airmen how to placate and distract them, and offered ways to avoid accidents by suggesting the airmen take care not to display behaviors of bravado, arrogance, or over-confidence, which were thought attractive to the creatures.
Posters and bulletins were also created which often included the following poem,
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.
Gremlins became even more well known when Roald Dahl, an airman in the 80 Squadron of the British Royal Air Force, who years earlier experienced an accidental crash landing in North Africa, published his first children’s novel, The Gremlins, in 1943.
The gremlins plagued not only the British. They were reported by Axis as well as Allied airmen. Dad’s B-17, Tremblin’ Gremlin was not the only B-17 in WWII named after the mischievous creatures.
According to Dave Osborne’s B-17 Fortress Master Log (Fortlog), the names of twenty-five B-17’s in WWII included “Gremlin” in their nickname. See for yourself by following the link to the Fortlog in the Sources section below. And if you want to read more and see illustrations and various descriptions of gremlins, sources for doing so are also included below.
The airmen who claim to have seen or been the victims of gremlins insist they were very real, they were no figment of the imagination. After reading the pilot narratives of the mechanical failings of Lazy Daisy, from her first mission all the way through to her next-to-last, even though no gremlins were mentioned in those reports, I believe that the ship was infested with them. I believe gremlins took every opportunity to bring down that ship. And I believe that on September 28, 1944, they finally succeeded.
Stay tuned and in a couple of weeks, perhaps you’ll believe in gremlins, too.
World War II Chronicle by the Editors of Publications International, Ltd.
Dave Osborne’s B-17 Fortress Master Log (Fortlog)
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2020