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
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