The term “gremlin” was derived from the Old English word greme, which means to vex and annoy, commonly depicted as mischievous and mechanically oriented, with a specific interest in aircraft. The word "gremlin" originated in Royal Air Force (RAF) aviators' slang 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 April 10, 1929. The concept of gremlins responsible for sabotaging aircraft was popularised during World War II among airmen of the UK's RAF, in particular the men of the high-altitude Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU) of RAF Benson, RAF Wick and RAF St Eval. The creatures were responsible 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 planes had similar and equally inexplicable mechanical problems. And that is certainly what the gremlins did to the pilots and their aircraft in World War II (1939–45) when the pesky entities were routinely blamed for engine troubles, electronic failures, and any other thing that might go wrong with an airplane.

An early reference to the Gremlin is in an article by Hubert Griffith in the servicemen's fortnightly Royal Air Force Journal dated April 18, 1942 although that article states the stories had been in existence for several years, and there are later recollections of it having been told by Battle of Britain Spitfire pilots as early as 1940. Later sources have sometimes claimed that the concept goes back to World War I, but there is no print evidence of this. Dave Stern, an aerospace, aviation, and history writer, says that the legend began in 1923 when a British navy pilot crashed into the sea. Once he was rescued, he blamed the accident on some little people who had jumped out of a beer bottle and had tormented him all night. It was these wee troublemakers who had followed him into the airplane, entered into the engine, messed with the flight controls, and caused him to crash. Not long after this reported gremlin attack, some pilots and mechanics stationed at an overseas RAF aerodrome complained of being bothered by the annoying entities, and by 1925, British pilots were cussing the little monsters and blaming gremlins for almost anything that might possibly go wrong with their aircraft.

According to airmen who swore that they had survived close encounters with the mischief makers, the gremlins dressed in red or green double-breasted frock coats, old-fashioned tricorn hats with a feather (or sometimes stocking caps with tassels at high altitudes), tights, and pointed footwear. Some of the gremlins loved to suck the high octane gas out of the tanks; others messed with the landing gears; and still others specialized in jamming the radio frequencies. Just as the pilots and mechanics were learning to respect the gremlin crowd, it wasn’t long before they also began to be annoyed by the gremlins’ girlfriends, the finellas, nicknamed the widgets.

When the U.S. Army Air Force pilots were stationed in Great Britain after the United States entered World War II in December 1941, they found the gremlins waiting for them. The men may have scoffed at their allies at first, but they were soon suffering unexplained attacks on their instrument panels, their bombing sights, and the de-icer mechanisms. The Yanks found that they had also fallen victims to the annoying antics of the gremlins. Although the most intense activity of the gremlin throng occurred during World War II, one stills hears on occasion a pilot cussing a mechanical failure in his aircraft as having been caused by a gremlin attack.

(Sources : Encyclopedia of Unusual and Unexplained Things; and Wikipedia)

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