Rachel White on how Roald Dahl's World War Two experiences helped inspire his first children's story, about the RAF's mythical Gremlins...
It was some time during the Battle of Britain, when Hurricanes and Spitfires were up from dawn to dark and the noise of battle was heard all day in the sky... it was then that the first gremlins were seen by the RAF.
This paragraph is from the earliest draft of The Gremlins, which has a claim to being Roald Dahl’s first children’s story. It was written whilst Roald Dahl was stationed in Washington in 1942, where it later came to the attention of Walt Disney (see image above) before being published in April 1943. Although it is not now widely available, early drafts are stored in the Roald Dahl archive.
When he wrote The Gremlins, Roald Dahl already had a career as a World War Two fighter pilot behind him, having flown planes in North Africa and taken part in the Battle of Athens in April 1941. However, a serious crash led to him being invalided out of the RAF and, once recovered, he took up a post working as an air attaché in the British Air Mission in the United States. His role there was to promote the work of the RAF to the American public.
It was whilst in the US that Roald Dahl started to write seriously - initially encouraged by British novelist C.S Forester - and the story that would become The Gremlins was an intensely personal one.
The action in The Gremlins takes place in southern England during the months of the Battle of Britain in 1940. Although Roald Dahl was abroad during this period, he would have been very aware of what was going on in England. His letters frequently mention the bombing; his family lived in Bexley, on the flight path of the German bombers, and he urged them to move out of danger.
Roald Dahl’s experiences as a fighter pilot certainly influenced The Gremlins - his description of the pilot's jargon, the planes and the mid-air fights between British and German pilots all have an accuracy and vivid authenticity to them. Into this realistic account, he added a "sort of fairy story" about little creatures with horns and strawberry noses, wearing green derby hats and shiny black suction boots.
The idea of gremlins – a term used by pilots for years as a jokey explanation for unexplained faults – was already an established part of RAF mythology by the time Roald Dahl started writing. Indeed, on the boat going out to Washington he met another RAF pilot, Douglas Bisgood, who had taken part in the Battle of Britain, and the two men passed the time swapping gremlin stories.
When Roald Dahl began writing he also created his own mythology for the gremlins. It’s possible to see roots for these tales in his own Norwegian ancestry, with their dark forests and trolls.
In the original Gremlins draft, the first chapter describes how the gremlins had originally lived in an England of “thick forests and greasy swamps... shrouded in a thin white mist," alongside "the goblins and the gnomes and the pixies and all their fairy tribe."
In this version the gremlins, with their "funny long tails,” were ridiculed by other creatures and set off for the mountains of Scotland. Here, they had lived happily for centuries until men arrived to cut down the trees in order for their aircraft factories, leading the gremlins to swear revenge on the "big tin birds." They then begin a campaign of mischief-making which includes using suction boots to stick themselves to planes, boring holes in the fuselage, wrecking the electrics, and even drilling into fuel tanks.
After the pilots' initial shock, they start training the gremlins up so that they become useful rather than saboteurs. The gremlins even help the main character, pilot Gus, pass a medical exam and return to flying. This has distinct echoes of Roald Dahl's own experiences, as a wartime injury had prevented him from flying, something that caused much regret and is echoed in the book: "To a pilot, being alive but earthbound is worse than not being alive at all.”
In fact, Roald Dahl felt so strongly about this that in his own copy of The Gremlins, he wrote the following lines:
You are seeing the deepest secret of all –
The secret of people who fly:
That in losing you laugh and in laughing you win,
And in winning you laugh and you cry...
Like The Gremlins, The Minpins has a fairy tale quality to it. The hero, Little Billy, meets a tiny race of people who wear suction boots and fly on the backs of birds. They unite with Billy to fight a common enemy, the Gruncher, who threatens their existence.
There are connections to other stories too. In James and the Giant Peach, it’s possible to see the Cloud Men as direct descendants of the high-altitude ‘Spandule’ gremlins, who blow ice and snow at the pilots.
And there is also an intriguing link to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At the end of The Gremlins, the Gremlins sing a song called ‘Wipple Scrumpet in the sky’. Twenty years later, Roald Dahl gave the mysterious workers in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory the name Whipple-Scrumpets but just before publication this name was changed - to Oompa-Loompas…
Roald Dahl went on to write a number of other stories based on his war experiences and he did use the Gremlin characters again, to write what is considered to be the first post-nuclear novel, Some Time Never, now out of print, in which the gremlins are less benign and take over a world scarred by nuclear war.
However, the legacy of The Gremlins is that it gives an early indication of Roald Dahl’s genius in using elements of his personal experience to help create stories that are full of magic and mischief.
Today, 10th July 2015, marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain with this Sunday, 12th July, designated Battle of Britain Memorial Day. For more information, visit the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust website.
You can find out more about Roald Dahl's World War Two experiences in Donald Sturrock's biography, Storyteller.