Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall

The Machine Gunners is Robert Westall’s first novel about World War II. It is set in the town of Garmouth, a seaside town in northern England. Though fictional, it is modeled on Tynemouth, the town where Westall grew up during the war.

The novel begins the morning after an air-raid. Before school starts, Chas (Charles) McGill, 14, goes off to collect souvenirs, things like bits of shrapnel or incendiary bomb fins from the raid. Chas has the second best collection in school, so when he stumbles upon the engines of a German plane, he thinks he has hit pay dirt, until he discovers that one has been claimed by a boy and the other engine is being guarded by the Constable Fatty Hardy, who starts chasing him.

Running off, Chas heads for a wood, where he knows he can hide and as luck would have it, he finds the rest of the German plane. Not only that, but the plane’s machine gun is still there and intact. Thinking it would be quite a souvenir, Chas tries to detach it, until he realizes that the pilot is still in the cockpit. The sight of the dead pilot shakes Chas up, but he runs off only because he realizes he needs to get to school.

After school, Chas and his friends “Cem” (short for Cemetery, his dad is the local undertaker) Jones and Audrey Parton return to the wood to retrieve the machine gun. Taking turns sawing it off, they finally free the gun and sneak it out of the wood up the leg of Cem’s Guy Fawkes effigy.* They get caught in an air-raid by Chas’ father, who takes the Guy and puts it in his greenhouse for safe keeping. The next morning Chas hides the machine gun in an old drain pipe. A few days later, Cem tells Chas he had returned to the plane and found four thousand rounds of ammunition clips for the gun.

Out of necessity, the group has grown to include Chas, Cem, Audrey, “Clogger” Duncan, a boy from Scotland sent to live with his aunt, a redheaded boy named Carrot Juice and Nicky. The fortress is being put together quite nicely when Nicky’s house is destroyed in an air-raid and the authorities think he has been crushed to death in the debris. Nicky decides to “stay dead” and hide so that he won’t be sent away. Clogger, unhappy living with his aunt, decides to move into the fortress with Nicky.

After the fortress is finished, the kids spend their free time watching out for German planes. When one finally appears, Chas starts shooting the machine gun, missing it but scaring the pilot into making an error and causing the plane to be brought down by anti-aircraft. The rear gunner, Sergeant Rudi Gerlath, manages to parachute out of the plane just before it explodes. Injured, he is force to spend a week hiding out in a rabbit hutch on a victory garden allotment, eating frozen Brussels sprouts he finds growing there. When he is finally able, he wanders about, wondering what to do. Cold and tired, he eventually finds the fortress, wraps himself up in the blankets he finds there and falls asleep.

When the kids to find Rudi, the first thing they do is take his gun away.  Disappointed that Rudi doesn’t look like the Nazis in films, the kids hold him prisoner anyway. And, after a while, seeing that Rudi is not in good shape, they begin taking care of him. After they discover he knows some English, they begin to get pretty comfortable with each other, hanging out, keeping watch and reading comic books. Living in the fortress with Clogger and Nicky, Rudi realizes, is a good place - it's warm, comfortable and there is always food to eat.
But the attack on his plane leaves the machine gun broken and it doesn’t take Chas long to figure out that Rudi could fix it. Rudi really doesn’t want to do this, but Chas makes a deal – they will provide Rudi with a sail boat he can use to escape to Norway if he fixes the machine gun.

Official explanation for ringing church bells to
indicate an invasion is underway
 Rudi puts off doing this for as long as possible, but one night there is another raid. This one is the worst Garmouth has had to date. Suddenly, the church bells could be heard tolling, the signal that the Germans were invading England. The kids race to their fortress to defend themselves. Chas tells Rudi the time has come to fix the machine gun. Believing the Germans are invading helps Rudi overcome his reluctance at letting the kids have such a powerful gun. When he finishes, they take him down to the harbor and give him the promised boat. Rudi soon realizes he hasn’t got enough strength to get to sail to Norway and returns to the fortress. But, unbeknownst to him and the kids, the tolling church bells had been a false alarm and the kids are reported missing. Now, Constable Fatty Hardy enlists members of the Free Polish Army to help look for them. The kids see them in foreign looking uniforms and believe Fatty Hardy is a quisling and the Polish soldiers are German.  Needless to say, chaos reigns supreme from this point on, with a bit of a surprise ending.

Robert Westall wrote one of my favorite World War II novels, Blitzcat. There, he gave us an endearing kitty that changed lives of those she came into contact with as she traveled across southern England searching for her one true owner, who is serving in the army. In The Machine Gunners, Chas does not have that same endearing quality, even though he has the same single minded focus on getting his machine gun to work. Yet, looking past his selfishness, Chas is really just a scared 13 year old trying to make a safe, secure place for himself in a world at war, where the next bomb could be the one that destroys your whole life.

This book is recommended for readers ages 12 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

Robert Westall received the following well-deserved awards for The Machine Gunners:
1975 CILIP Carnegie Medal
1975 Runner-up Guardian Award
1977 Boston Globe Horn Book Award Honor Book
1989 Preis der Leseratten 1989
2007 Carnegie Medal 70th Anniversary 2007 Top Ten

For more information on the war in Tynemouth, including a section devoted to Robert Westall and The Machine Gunners (at the bottom of the page), please see North Shields 173
There is a wonderful tribute to Robert Westall, who passed away in 1993, at Remembering Robert Westall

And parts of Robert Westall’s archives, including information about the controversy about bad language and violence surrounding The Machine Gunners when it was first published, may be found online at Seven Stories

*Guy Fawkes – part of a plot by English Catholics in Protestant England to blow up Parliament, Fawkes was caught under the Houses of Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder on November 5, 1605. He was executed along with others in on the plan. In Britain, kids make an effigy of Guy, called “the Guy” and carrying him around the street begging for a penny for the Guy. On bonfire night, November 5, the Guy is tossed on top of the bonfire and burned and fireworks are set off, bought with the pennies collected. I remember my dad telling me about Guy Fawkes and Bonfire when he was a boy in Wales.

This is book 8 of my British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette
This is book 9 of my Forgotten Treasures Challenge hosted by Retroreduxs Reviews 


  1. New Follower...nice blog.

    Stopping by to say hello and to take a look around.

    Stop by my site if you like...I am hosting a Father's Day Giveaway with five books to two luck winners.


  2. Hello
    I've been intending to read the machine gunners for ages and now I want to read Blitzcat as well!
    I am a recent follower of your blog and am enjoying it very much.

  3. Thanks for dropping by, Elizabeth and Barbara, I enjoy your blogs also.
    The Machine Gunners is a great book, but then again, Robert Westall was a great writer. Hope you like it.

  4. One of my favorite books, the BBC even made it into a TV series in 1983 (I was 7). WWII was such a huge part of UK history, the scars from it are still all over the country, whether it's bunkers, unexploded bombs being found, or simply the buildings of central London being riddled with bullet holes. This book allowed for kids to feel and understand, it really gave the perspective of a child, with the hero's being truly opened the mind to imagination, connecting real world events with fiction, something that many books are unable to do well.
    I was thinking about this story today, couldn't remember the name, did a search and here it is being talked about..wonderful book...wonder story!

    All the best,

    Simon English

  5. Just wanted to say I thoroughly enjoyed the machine gunners (thanks to your review) and am halfway through Blitzcat. I ended up buying a box set of Robert Westall titles so they will keep me busy for a while but I will keep coming back to see what you review next.

  6. Westall has been on my TBR list for ages. I'll look ofr Blitzcat (which I've not heard of before). I don't know why it's taken me so long to find your blog since I enjoy WWII books as well.

  7. I have been willing to read it since we started our topic world war 1/2

  8. I read this book for school(currently in yr8) and I am now doing an essay on how Westall presents Chas. I have discovered that this book is very fascinating not just for its plot but also for its amazing language and techniques.