While gremlins bear more than a passing resemblance both in description and behaviour to other folklore creatures such as goblins or boggarts, they are a much younger story, with the first references to them appearing less than 100 years ago. The concept of gremlins grew from the belief amongst pilots that mischievous tricksters were responsible for sabotaging aircraft, a theory that was increasingly popularised during the Second World War.
The concept of gremlins as a malicious vandal of aircrafts seems to have originated amongst British pilots stationed overseas during the 1920s. One of the earliest recorded references to gremlins is found in the 1938 novel The ATA: Women with Wings. Written by pilot Pauline Gower, the book refers to Scotland as ‘gremlin country’, describing mischievous sprites fond of snipping through the wing cables on bi-planes with scissors. Numerous pilots that took part in the Battle of Britain during 1940 also spoke of the existence of gremlins, particularly those that piloted the Supermarine Spitfire.
Gremlins are generally described as a mischievous imp-like creatures, around a foot tall, that seem to have a strange fixation with aviation and aircraft. Many airmen described them as remaining unseen while causing a range of malfunctions across aircraft and navigation systems. Others claim to have seen diminutive figures tampering with screws, chewing through wires, poking holes in the fuselage and other acts of vandalism.
Some accounts portray them as simply small humanoids, close in appearance both to humans and traditional descriptions of older stories of the ‘little folk’, such as fairies. Others credit them with a more inhuman appearance, demonstrating bat-like ears, large eyes, rows of spikes along their backs, hooked claws and needle-like teeth.
Early accounts of gremlins from RAF airmen during the Second World War suggested that they may have held Axis sympathies, but similar accounts of otherwise unaccounted for damage and malfunctions in German aircraft quickly put paid to this line of reasoning. It became generally accepted that they were simply malicious beings with no particular allegiance other than a strange fascination with aircraft and love for damaging them.
While tales of gremlins originated with British servicemen, accounts amongst US airmen quickly began to appear. One particularly violent account originated in a San Diego newspaper in 1939, and was later published by UFO researcher Jerome Clarke in his 1950 anthology Flying Saucer Review.
The account described a US cargo plane departing San Diego en-route to Hawaii, flying for several hours without apparent incident before air traffic control began to receive urgent distress calls. Shortly afterwards, the plane hastily returned to its departure base, landing at speed. On investigating the aircraft after receiving no response to radio messages, ground crews found both pilots and the other crew dead, their bodies rent by gaping tears. The co-pilot appeared to have survived long enough to land the plane successfully before succumbing to his injuries. On closer inspection, both pilots were found to have drawn their sidearms and emptied the magazines, the spent cartridges strewn around the bottom of the cockpit and bullet holes found throughout the aircraft.
Official reports of gremlins remained rare throughout the Second World War, and became even more infrequent in the years since. Many air crews that did claim to encounter them were loath to officially report them, and they remained largely the talk of mess halls and barracks. Some historians go so far as to claim that they played an important role in maintaining morale, particularly during the difficult period faced by RAF personnel during the Battle of Britain, heavily outnumbered, suffering heavy losses and fighting to prevent an all-out invasion of their home nation. By allowing them to account blame for accidents, malfunctions and even mistakes to gremlins and their penchant for meddling with aircraft rather than their fellow crew members, RAF personnel were able to maintain the esprit de corps that helped them defeat the Luftwaffe during the summer of 1940.