These mischievous creatures that sabotage airplanes are claimed by some to be actual physical beings.
by Brian Dunning
June 12, 2018
Although most people know them only from The Twilight Zone, stories of airplane-dwelling creatures known as gremlins have a long history. Although our initial reaction may be to classify them alongside leprechauns and fairies and other denizens of folklore, gremlins are in our literature today as actual physical beings, with official written reports describing sightings aboard military aircraft. Most incredibly, according to today's accounts of gremlins, during World War II the Royal Air Force even officially acknowledged their existence and published a training manual explaining how to deal with them — and we'll examine that as well. Today we're going to put the existing evidence for gremlins to the test.
It is this trait of being supported by actual official accounts that sets gremlins apart from other mythical beings, and that makes them such a great subject for Skeptoid. Moreover, these reports are said to be numerous and widespread, though mostly coming from the British RAF during WWII. However, one of the first things you discover when doing more serious research on gremlin stories is that there seem to be far fewer such stories than are generally reported. You can count them on your fingers, and some of them don't even seem to have very much to do with gremlins. Yet when you read articles about them, writers claim there are stories from many countries, far too many stories to ignore; but then they all cite the same two or three.
The first of these common stories is of an unnamed pilot who crashed his plane into the ocean in 1923, and stated that small creatures who had jumped out of his beer bottle the night before had harassed him all night, then followed him to his plane, and interfered with the controls to make him crash. However, when we go to the original source, we find that the story is misreported. It was published in a dispatch in a 1942 issue of Newsweek, and though it was light on specifics, it did blame the crash not on gremlins but on the fact that this particular Fleet Air Arm plane — a reconnaissance plane launched from a shipboard catapult — had perpetual engine trouble. This was yet another of its forced landings on its floats, and the pilot jokingly blamed "gremlins" while his shipmates quipped that they probably came from his beer bottle. At the time, it was certainly not reported that actual creatures had been on the plane; however in all of its modern retellings, that's what authors have morphed it into.
One week after the Newsweek article, Time magazine reported that the RAF had been using the term gremlins to refer to mechanical difficulties since 1923. Whatever source the Newsweek correspondent had used for the story of the unhealthy catapult plane — which he didn't give, so I couldn't track it down — could well be the original print source of the term gremlin used in this manner.
Another of these few most common stories also has a dubious reporting provenance. It concerns a transport plane that left San Diego in 1939 headed for Hawaii, but soon turned around and landed back at San Diego, with everyone on board having been killed, apparently by some ferocious animal, with the sole survivor dying soon after landing the plane. The story, it turns out, is pure fiction. The yarn was first woven by UFO author Robert Coe Gardner in the 1950s, then was altered a bit and retold by Charles Berlitz — creator of the Bermuda Triangle mythology — in his 1988 book Charles Berlitz's World of Strange Phenomena. This is the version that today's writers and bloggers retell as being about gremlins. We won't go into details but many of the story's specifics prove that it's not a true story; for one thing, there were no military transport planes in 1939 that had the range to go from San Diego to Hawaii; and for another, nothing remotely like this appears in actual records of fatal aircraft accidents in 1939, or in newspapers from the day. It's fiction.
Another story is that of L.W., an anonymous person whose story first appeared on the Mysterious Universe website in 2015. No source is given, and I was unable to find any earlier publication of the story. Mysterious Universe claimed that L.W. had been an American B-17 pilot who reported gremlins inside and outside his aircraft. As absolutely zero verifiable information was included with the account and it was unreferenced, there is no reason to consider it to be anything other than fiction.
There is one passage copy-and-pasted among virtually every article about gremlins, which most authors say was published sometime in the 1920s:
...It was the old Royal Naval Air Service in 1917 and the newly-constituted Royal Air Force in 1918 which first appear to have detected the existence of a horde of mysterious and malicious sprites whose whole purpose in life was to disconcert pupil-pilot and experienced pilot alike, and to bring about as many as possible of the inexplicable mishaps which, in those days as now, trouble the airman's life.
Repeating this passage as early evidence of gremlins is terrible reporting. The article in which it appears was not from the 1920s, but from 1943, in a January issue of the British weekly magazine The Spectator. The complete article is available in The Spectator's excellent online archives, and it's about gremlins as a kind of comical wartime folklore, not as reality. The article's very first sentence — omitted by the modern retellers — says so in black and white:
It is not often that a man can be in at the birth, the flourishing maturity and the apparent death of a complete mythology. But any officer or airman who has served in the Royal Air Force since the last War can claim this distinction.
By now we have a pretty good idea of what to expect when tracking down the final, and seemingly most compelling, piece of evidence for the reality of gremlins: that alleged official RAF training manual telling how the beasties should be handled. We find references to this manual in many modern articles about the history of gremlins, for example this, from the Gremlin Trouble website:
...they were studied on the Ministry's behalf by the well known Gremlorist, Pilot Officer Percy Prune, who wrote up their exploits in a service manual. This was the first official document to take Gremlins seriously and to propose ways to either placate them or distract them sufficiently to accomplish the mission without major mishap.
Other sources say essentially the same thing. If there was indeed an official RAF acknowledgement of gremlins, then this alleged service manual ought to be easy to find, and could well be one of the most important documents in the world. So let's see what our search turns up.
Unfortunately for today's authors repeating the story about Percy Prune's official RAF service manual, I regret to inform them that their research was — shall we say — incomplete. Percy Prune was not an actual officer; he was a cartoon character. During the war, it was feared that training manuals were too dry and nobody was reading them. It turned out that an RAF officer named George Willis was also a writer for the British humor magazine Punch, using his two middle names as his pseudonym: Anthony Armstrong. Armstrong was put in charge of making training manuals more readable, and so he founded and became the editor of a new periodical called Tee Emm, which stood for Technical Memoranda. Sixty issues in six volumes were produced from April 1941 to March 1946. Armstrong engaged other Punch writers to keep its content entertaining, and found an RAF cartoonist in the person of Bill Hooper. Hooper and Armstrong collaborated and created the character of Pilot Officer Percy Prune (among many others), drawn by Hooper using the pseudonym Raff. The joke was that although Prune believed he represented the epitome of safety, everything he did was a disaster. He was a comical example of what not to do.
I recruited a crew of volunteers on Twitter to go through every issue of Tee Emm found in an online repository, and after countless man-hours, a grand total of two sole references to gremlins were found. One was in a pretty funny article called "Brass Monkeys, and How to Avoid Becoming One" recommending the warmest clothes to wear for the men holding various jobs aboard freezing high-altitude bombers:
You never know when you've got to turn out [to] do a job aft, where the ice-gremlins are inclined to stow away.
The only other reference was in an article titled "Mind Your Marcolins!" about a particularly temperamental piece of radio gear, with some tips on how to coax it into working. The article began with this tongue-in-cheek definition of the cause of the unreliability:
Marcolins: A type of imp or gnome, related to the Gremlin family (q.v.) but confining their activities to W/T [wireless telegraphy] equipment. Marcolins are small and tubby and appear to be constructed mainly of resistance wire. This enables them amongst other things to insert themselves into the H/T [handheld transceiver] lead and produce a falling feed, otherwise unaccountable. They invariably carry adequate equipment for their purposes, such as soldering irons for shorting positives to negatives, or a monkey-wrench for the double purpose of shifting frequencies or bashing in the tops of valves. Marcolins should be constantly suspected everywhere in W/T equipment and suitable steps taken to discourage and outwit them.
In other words, to all you authors characterizing this as genuine government acknowledgement of mysterious beings: IT WAS A JOKE.
We shouldn't be surprised that Armstrong and Hooper gave their fellow soldiers something to smile about, and we also shouldn't be surprised that such reports from the day — be they satirical, informal jokes, or even serious reports from any cause — would be described as literal true accounts by today's writers looking to promote a sensational story, or just honestly misinterpreting third and fourth hand stories as having been intended to be taken factually. Concerned aviators can probably take comfort in the fact that no evidence supports any of these modern revisionings of WWII gremlin legendry — and we can safely file them away alongside the leprechauns and fairies in the archives of folklore.
Thus, The Spectator's 1943 article was possibly a bit premature when it wrote of the demise of the gremlin:
Mr. Walt Disney is reported to be on his way to England to use them in a film illustrating the errors and pitfalls Into which a young pilot is liable to fall. And the knowledge that from henceforth their images will be used to instruct and not to disconcert, to help and not to hinder, is too much for them. The older Gremlins are reported to have died already, broken-hearted, and it is understood that the young ones will not be long in following them. We shall miss them in the Royal Air Force, but we cannot honestly say that we shall regret them.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Gremlins." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
12 Jun 2018. Web.
21 Jun 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4627>
References & Further Reading
Berlitz, C. Charles Berlitz's World of Strange Phenomena. New York: Wynwood Press, 1988.
Editors. "Mind Your Marcolins!" Tee Emm. 1 Oct. 1943, Volume 3, Number 7: 173-174.
Editors. "Brass Monkeys, and How to Avoid Becoming One." Tee Emm. 1 Jun. 1943, Volume 3, Number 3: 74-76.
Gagarin, N. "Was there really an incident in 1939 when a military cargo plane took off from San Diego and then came back and the whole crew was mysteriously killed by something inside the plane while in flight?" Quora. Quora, Inc., 18 Oct. 2017. Web. 3 Jun. 2018. <http://tinyurl.com/ybzav5bt>
Hamilton, T. The Life and Times of Pilot Officer Prune: The Official Story of Tee Emm. Richmond: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1991.
Harvey, J. The Tumbling Mirth: Remembering the Air Force. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1983.
Mueller, M. "Dispatch." Newsweek. 7 Sep. 1942, Magazine.
Woosnam-Jones, W. "Gremlins." The Spectator. 1 Jan. 1943, Number 5975: 7-8.
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