Gremlins: The Colorful Lore of Aviation

All about gremlins, fifinellas and flippertygibbets

British bombers over Germany during WWII

From sailors to circusfolk and cowboys to lumberjacks, nearly every profession has its share of legends and folklore. Pilots, particularly British aviators during World War II, had their gremlins-  mischievous imps with a fondness for tinkering with machinery and sabotaging aircraft. The lore of the gremlin was so strong that it evolved and eventually spawned an entire mythology among aviators; there were several varieties of gremlins, such as fifinellas (female gremlins), widgets (male baby gremlins) and flippertygibbets (female baby gremlins). Even the gremlin king was bestowed with a colorful title- The Grand Walloper.

The word "gremlin" is believed to come from an Old English verb greme, meaning "to vex", and can be traced back to the late 1920s, when it became a part of Royal Air Force slang. However, the mythology of gremlins wasn't popularized until the the early 1940s, thanks, in part, to journalists and war correspondents like Peter Edson and Gladwin Hill. As a result of their newspaper stories, the lore of the gremlin spread from RAF bases to mainstream America.

Gladwin Hill was a member of the "Writing 69th" (a.k.a "The Flying Typewriters")- a group of eight journalists who flew on bombing missions with the Eighth Air Force. According to Hill, gremlins were long-nosed, garishly-costumed creatures about a foot high who "live in nooks but are allergic to crannies". In 1942 Hill wrote about one RAF station that had an entire bulletin board devoted to the duticulatus prangiferus- the bat-eared, long-losed variety of gremlin. "Habitat: Obscure, but a large colony is known to exist between Whitechurch and Newbury, probably in a rubbish dump," read one bulletin board description. Hill also stated:

"Gremlins usually wear tight blue pants, red jackets, and green derbies. They weave their clothes out of pocket-fuzz, and live mainly off the stuffing out of the empty olives which are served in Martini cocktails. They live in little houses made of paper clips, which explains why paper clips, never known to wear out in use, must constantly be replenished... The Gremlins originally lived in hollow banks besides rivers and deep pools. Then some of them moved to mountain crags and got to liking altitude so much that it was natural for them to start sneaking rides in airplanes." (1)

According to Hill, there were many ways of dealing with gremlins; one RAF coastal command station is credited with the invention of an effective anti-gremlin powder, which can be sprinkled in the ground around aircraft. Another method involved a type of "mystical exorcism", performed by such tasks as eating a single salted peanut or counting one's shirt buttons and dividing by three. "The trouble is that by the time you are aware that gremlins are at work, the damage is usually done," wrote Hill.

Peter Edson also played a major role in bringing gremlin folklore to the masses. Edson, who authored a syndicated column in over 750 newspapers, was the Washington correspondent for the NEA (Newspaper Enterpise Association). Like Gladwin Hill, Edson also wrote columns about gremlins in 1942. Edson's depicted the creature thusly:

"Gremlins are only a few inches tall. They have horns growing out of a triangular face. And a little spiked tail. They can't fly, but they wear tiny black vacuum cup boots that enable them to walk on the ceiling and walls, or even stand on the wings of a dive bomber... Every British pilot has his personal gremlins. Airmen will sit at tea or at beer and talk about their gremlins by the hour. (2)

"Where gremlins came from originally, nobody knows, nor who saw them first. But right after the war broke out, young lads of the R.A.F. began to see gremlins dancing on their plane wings as they flew off to Germany... Gradually the stories about the gremlins began to grow until today, they constitute an amazing and fabulous folklore of flying. British pilots going out to Libya, the Near East, India or Australia have found that their gremlins went along, so gremlins are now practically all over the world."

Edson described the gremlin's favorite activities, such as crawling inside cylinder heads and fouling a plane's spark plugs or hiding in the recess of retractable landing gear and bracing its feet against the wheel to force the pilot into a crash landing. "When gremlins behave like this," wrote Edson, "you have to talk to them and explain very patiently that they mustn't do things like that again." He added that gremlins could even be trained, and that there were good gremlins as well as bad ones.

"Gremlins are all males," stated Edson. "As the legend grew and the observation of the gremlins became more scientific it was discovered there were females od the species. But the females are fifinellas. A fifinella is rare indeed, being a good bit like a queen bee. The males all seek her out, but she is very elusive, proud and haughty as a queen should be. Baby gremlins are known as widgets, and a baby fifinella is a flippertygibbet. The story goes on from there."

A depiction of gremlins in a 1942 newspaper

While much has been written on the history and mythology of the gremlin, very little has been written about the psychological impact gremlins may have had on the pilots who flew with them. Why did aviators feel the need to concoct such a colorful menagerie of impish devils in the first place? To answer this question, we turned to author and historian Marlin Bressi:

"Gremlins, while imaginary, played a very important role to the airmen of the Royal Air Force. Gremlin tales helped build morale among pilots, which, in turn, helped them repel the Luftwaffe invasion during the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940. The war may have had a very different outcome if the R.A.F. pilots had lost their morale and allowed Germany's plans for Operation Sea Lion (the planned invasion of the U.K.) to develop. In a way, it could be argued that gremlins, troublesome as they were, ultimately helped the Allies win the war."

As for the purpose of gremlin tales, Bressi believes that such tales helped deflect personal accountability for minor human and mechanical errors. "Morale among the R.A.F. pilots would have suffered if they pointed the finger of blame at each other. It was far better to make the scapegoat a fantastic and comical creature than another member of your own squadron. The gremlin myth helped deflect blame from R.A.F. personnel much like baseball's 'Curse of the Bambino'- said to be responsible for the Red Sox's long World Series championship drought between 1918 and 2004- helped deflect blame from players like Bill Buckner or Tim Wakefield. It was easier, and more polite, to blame Boston's misfortunes on superstition than on the actions of individual players."

Sadly, the psychological impact of gremlins has never been studied and probably never will, as World War II veterans pass away at a rate of 1,000 per day (according to the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs), and only a handful of R.A.F. pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain are still living.

A Massachusetts native, Anna Newburg is a freelance writer and co-creator of Journal of the Bizarre.