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Gremlin Mascot of 482nd Bomb Group (Heavy).jpg
This good luck gremlin mascot flew with 482nd Bomb Group (Heavy) 1942–1945.
GroupingMythological creature
Sub groupingMischievous spirit
First reportedIn folklore
CountryWestern Hemisphere
Europe (initially)
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This article is about the folkloric creature. For other uses, see Gremlin (disambiguation).
Gremlin Mascot of 482nd Bomb Group (Heavy).jpg
This good luck gremlin mascot flew with 482nd Bomb Group (Heavy) 1942–1945.
GroupingMythological creature
Sub groupingMischievous spirit
First reportedIn folklore
CountryWestern Hemisphere
Europe (initially)

A Gremlin is a fantastic creature commonly depicted as mischievous and mechanically oriented, with a specific interest in aircraft. Gremlins' mischievous natures are similar to those of English folkloric imps, while their inclination to damage or dismantle machinery is more modern.

Origins in aviation[edit]

Although their origin is found in myths among airmen, claiming that the gremlins were responsible for sabotaging aircraft, John W. Hazen states that "some people" derive the name from the Old English word gremian, "to vex".[1] Since World War II, different fantastical creatures have been referred to as gremlins, bearing varying degrees of resemblance to the originals.

The term "gremlin" denoting a mischievous creature that sabotages aircraft, originates in Royal Air Force (RAF) slang in the 1920s among the British pilots stationed in Malta, the Middle East, and India, with the earliest recorded printed use being in a poem published in the journal Aeroplane in Malta on 10 April 1929.[2][3] Later sources have sometimes claimed that the concept goes back to World War I, but there is no print evidence of this.[1][N 1]

An early reference to the gremlin is in aviator Pauline Gower '​s The ATA: Women with Wings (1938) where Scotland is described as "gremlin country", a mystical and rugged territory where scissor-wielding gremlins cut the wires of biplanes when unsuspecting pilots were about.[4] An article by Hubert Griffith in the servicemen's fortnightly Royal Air Force Journal dated 18 April 1942, also chronicles the appearance of gremlins,[5] although the article states the stories had been in existence for several years, with later recollections of it having been told by Battle of Britain Spitfire pilots as early as 1940.[6]

This concept of gremlins was popularized during World War II among airmen of the UK's RAF units,[7] in particular the men of the high-altitude Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU) of RAF Benson, RAF Wick and RAF St Eval. The flight crews blamed gremlins for otherwise inexplicable accidents which sometimes occurred during their flights. Gremlins were also thought at one point to have enemy sympathies, but investigations revealed that enemy aircraft had similar and equally inexplicable mechanical problems. As such, gremlins were portrayed as being equal opportunity tricksters, taking no sides in the conflict, and acting out their mischief from their own self-interest.[8] In reality, the gremlins were a form of "buck passing" or deflecting blame.[8] This led folklorist John Hazen to note that "the gremlin has been looked on as new phenomenon, a product of the machine age—the age of air".[1]

Film by Disney[edit]

Original 1943 cover of The Gremlins by Roald Dahl

Author Roald Dahl is credited with getting the gremlins known outside the Royal Air Force.[9] He would have been familiar with the myth, having carried out his military service in 80 Squadron of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East. Dahl had his own experience in an accidental crash-landing in the Libyan Desert. In January 1942 he was transferred to Washington, D.C. as Assistant Air attaché at the British Embassy. There he wrote his first children's novel The Gremlins, in which "Gremlins" were tiny men who lived on RAF fighters, their wives were "Fifinellas" and their children were "Widgets". Dahl showed the finished manuscript to Sidney Bernstein, the head of the British Information Service, who came up with the idea to send it to Walt Disney.[9][N 2]

The manuscript arrived in Disney's hands in July 1942, and he considered using it as material for a live action/animated full-length feature film, offering Dahl a contract.[N 3] The film project was changed to an animated feature and entered pre-production, with characters "roughed out" and storyboards created.[10] Disney managed to have the story published in the December 1942 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. At Dahl's urging, in early 1943, a revised version of the story, The Gremlins was published as a picture book by Random House (later updated and re-published in 2006 by Dark Horse Comics).[N 4]

The publication of The Gremlins by Random House consisted of a 50,000 run for the U.S. market [N 5]with Dahl ordering 50 copies for himself as promotional material for himself and the upcoming film, handing them out to everyone he knew, including Lord Halifax, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who read it to her grandchildren.[9] The book was considered an international success with 30,000 more sold in Australia but initial efforts to reprint the book were precluded by a wartime paper shortage.[11] Reviewed in major publications, Dahl was considered a writer-of-note and his appearances in Hollywood to follow up with the film project were met with notices in Hedda Hopper's columns.[12][N 6]

The film project was reduced to an animated "short" and eventually cancelled in August 1943, when copyright and RAF rights could not be resolved. Thanks mainly to Disney, the story had its share of publicity which helped in introducing the concept to a wider audience. Issues #33-#41 of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories published between June 1943 and February 1944 contained a nine-episode series of short silent stories featuring a Gremlin Gus as their star. The first was drawn by Vivie Risto and the rest of them by Walt Kelly. This served as their introduction to the comic book audience.

While Roald Dahl was famous for making gremlins known world wide, many returning Air Servicemen swear they saw creatures tinkering with their equipment. One crewman swore he saw one before an engine malfunction that caused his B-25 Mitchell bomber to rapidly lose altitude, forcing the aircraft to return to base. Folklorist Hazen likewise offers his own alleged eyewitness testimony of these creatures, which appeared in an academically praised and peer-reviewed publication, describing an occasion he found "a parted cable which bore obvious tooth marks in spite of the fact that the break occurred in a most inaccessible part of the plane." At this point, Hazen states he heard "a gruff voice" demand, "How many times must you be told to obey orders and not tackle jobs you aren't qualified for? — This is how it should be done." Upon which Hazen heard a "musical twang" and another cable was parted.[13]

Critics of this idea state that the stress of combat and the dizzying heights caused such hallucinations, often believed to be a coping mechanism of the mind to help explain the many problems aircraft faced whilst in combat.

Differences between Dahl versions[edit]

Header textIn GremlinsIn Sometime Never
HabitatIn clouds and in hangarsIn one forest in England before the Industrial Revolution then moved underground
Food sourcePostage stampsSnozzberries
Social StructureUncertain; rivalry between gremlins of different habitats; no established familiesRuled by one Leader, human-like society
SapienceComparable to children, no language or cultureFully comparable to human; read human books

In media[edit]

William Shatner and the Gremlin in The Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (1963).

Other gremlins[edit]

Gremlin Americanus: A Scrap Book Collection of Gremlins by artist and pilot Eric Sloane may predate the Roald Dahl publication. Published in 1942 by B.F. Jay & Co, the central characters are characterized as "pixies of the air" and are friends of both RAF and USAAF pilots. The gremlins are mischievous and give pilots a great deal of trouble, but they have never been known to cause fatal accidents but can be blamed for any untoward incident or "bonehead play", qualities that endear them to all flyers.[20][N 7]

See also Ssh! Gremlins by H.W. illustrated by Ronald Niebour ("Neb" of the Daily Maily), published by H. W. John Crowther Publication, England, in 1942. This booklet featured numerous humorous illustrations describing the gremlins as whimsical but essentially friendly folk. According to "H.W.", contrary to some reports, gremlins are a universal phenomenon and by no means only the friends of flying men.[21][N 8]

Set of World War II gremlin-themed industrial safety posters
Two gremlins have tipped over a barrel of grease, causing a worker to slip.
Gremlins are floor greasers!
Watch your step!
Gremlins tossing items at a woman without goggles operating a metal punch.
Gremlins love to pitch things at your eyes.
Wear safety goggles.
Assorted gremlins doing various mischief to a worker carrying a load.
Gremlins think it's fun to hurt you.
Use care always.
Gremlins pushing a man back into a circular to cut his leg.
Gremlins will push you 'round!
Look where you're going!

Another type of "gremlin" originates from psychology and the professional life coaching fields. In this sense a gremlin is one's self-defeating behavior.[22]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Hazen also claims that, "it was not until 1922 that anyone dared mention their name."
  2. ^ Dahl claimed that the gremlins were exclusively a Royal Air Force icon and he originated the term, but the elf-like figures had a very convoluted origin that predated his original writings.
  3. ^ Dahl was given permission by the British Air Ministry to work in Hollywood and an arrangement had been made that all proceeds from the eventual film would be split between the RAF Benevolent Fund and Dahl.[10]
  4. ^ The book had an autobiographical connection as Dahl had flown as a Hurricane fighter pilot in the RAF, and was temporarily on leave from operational flying after serious injuries sustained in a crash landing in Libya. He later returned to flying.
  5. ^ Both paperback and hardcover versions were printed in 1943.
  6. ^ In 1950, Collins Publishing (New York) published a limited reprint of The Gremlins.
  7. ^ On the front pastedown endpaper, Sloane's book featured a sketch of an aircraft in flight, with the pilot saying, "The Gremlins will get you if you don't watch out!!" and giving a thumbs up.[20]
  8. ^ The booklet was published posthumously as Wilson had died in 1940.


  1. ^ a b c Hazen 1972, p. 465.
  2. ^ "Entry for 'Gremlin'." Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved: 12 October 2010.
  3. ^ Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus. Lewisville, TX: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004. ISBN 978-0-618-45450-1.
  4. ^ Merry 2010, p. 66.
  5. ^ "The Gremlin Question." Royal Air Force Journal, Number 13, 18 April 1942.
  6. ^ Laming, John. "Do You Believe In Gremlins?" Stories of 10 Squadron RAAF in Townsville, 30 December 1998. Retrieved: 12 October 2010.
  7. ^ Desmond, John. "The Gremlins Reform: An R.A.F. Fable." The New York Times, 11 April 1943. Retrieved: 12 October 2010.
  8. ^ a b Sasser 1971, p. 1094.
  9. ^ a b c Donald 2008, p. 147.
  10. ^ a b Conant 2008, p. 43.
  11. ^ Sturrock 2010, p. 188.
  12. ^ Conant 2008, pp. 43–46.
  13. ^ Hazen 1972, p. 466.
  14. ^ Smith 2010, p. 218.
  15. ^ Ceiling Unlimited — "Gremlins" at the Paley Center for Media; retrieved 28 May 2012
  16. ^ Merrie Melodies: Falling Hare at Internet Archive Movie Archive (The film is now in public domain)
  17. ^ "The Twilight Zone" TV series at the Internet Movie Database
  18. ^ "The Twilight Zone" movie at the Internet Movie Database
  19. ^ Kapper, Chad. "The Flite Test Logo." Flitetest. Stonekap, 20 May 2012. Web. 10 June 2014.
  20. ^ a b Sloane, Eric. Gremlin Americanus: A Scrap Book Collection of Gremlins. New York, B.F. Jay & Co., 1944, 1943, First edition 1942.
  21. ^ Wilson, Herbert Wrigley (H.W.). R. A. F. Book of the Season: Ssh! Gremlins by H.W. London: H. W. John Crowther Publication, 1942.
  22. ^ Carson 2004, pp. 14, 16.


External links[edit]