The Machine Gunners

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The Machine Gunners
The Machine Gunners cover.jpg
Front cover of New Windmills edition
(Heinemann, 1996)
Author Robert Westall
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Children's historical novel, war story
Publisher Macmillan
Publication date
18 September 1975
Media type Print (hardcover; paperback)
Pages 189 pp (first edition)
ISBN 0333186443
OCLC 2186118
LC Class PZ7.W51953 Mac3[1]
Followed by Fathom Five

The Machine Gunners is a children's historical novel by Robert Westall, published by Macmillan in 1975. Set in northeastern England shortly after the Battle of Britain (February 1941), it features children who find a crashed German aircraft with a machine gun and ammunition; they build a fortress, participate in the war, and capture and imprison a German gunner. The author also wrote a play based on the book, and others have adapted it for television and radio. Fathom Five is a sequel set in 1943.

Westall won the annual Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year's outstanding children's book by a British subject,[2] and Machine Gunners was named one of the top ten Medal-winning works for the 70th anniversary celebration in 2007, selected by a panel to compose the ballot for a public election of the all-time favourite.[3]

Plot summary[edit]

The story is set during the Second World War and deals with a group of six children living in the North East of England. Their town, Garmouth, regularly suffers bombing raids by the German Luftwaffe. One of the children, Chas McGill, finds a crashed German Heinkel 111 bomber and takes a fully operational machine gun and over two thousand rounds of ammunition. With the help of his friend, Cyril "Cemetery/Cem" Jones, the pair intend to set up their own fortress with their friends, including a boy from Glasgow called "Clogger" Duncan, and another boy, nicknamed "Carrot Juice" on account of his ginger hair and freckles. They also team up with a girl called Audrey Parton, and a boy, Benjamin "Nicky" Nichol. They name their "Fortress Caporetto", after a World War I battle in which Chas's grandfather fought.

Later a bomb lands on Nicky's house and he is presumed dead. According to Chas's puritan neighbour Nicky's mother and a man were found "dead in their bed of sin with not a stitch on". Nicky has actually survived, and, shaken and upset, he hides in the Fortress, where he is found by the gang. After this, only his friends know he is alive. Clogger runs away from his aunt's home to live in the Fortress with Nicky.

During an attack by an Me 110 fighter, the children fire their gun at the plane. They miss but, surprised, the plane swerves into the path of an AA gun and is shot down by three Spitfires from the nearby airfield at RAF Acklington.

The pilot is killed; rear gunner Rudi Gerlath bails out, injuring his ankle on landing. He discovers the children's hidden fortress and is promptly detained by the children, who take his pistol, even though their machine gun is damaged and inoperable.

The children do not wish to reveal their secret so do not hand Rudi over to the authorities, but keep him prisoner at their fort, where Clogger and Nicky now live permanently. After a while Rudi is bribed with the offer of a boat belonging to Nicky's dead father, if he will mend the machine gun. He agrees and mends it before being taken to the dock where he rows off.

The same night the church bells ring, the alarm signalling a German invasion. The children hurry to the fortress but do not see anything; it was a false alarm.

Out at sea, Rudi finds he does not have the strength to row to German-occupied Norway and is forced back to England. He rejoins the children at the fortress.

The next day it is realised that the children are missing, and some Polish refugee soldiers are drafted in to look for them. The children, on seeing troops speaking in a foreign language, open fire on them with the gun, believing they are a German invasion force. The children are soon overpowered, however, and forced to surrender. In the chaos, Clogger shoots and wounds Rudi with his own Luger pistol, but the injury is not fatal.

The very well-made fortress is surrendered to the Home Guard, then Clogger and Nicky are taken to a children's home while the other children are handed over to their parents.

A sequel, Fathom Five, set two years later, was published in 1979.


The Machine-Gunners was dramatised as a BBC television serial in 1983, with scripts written by William Corlett.[4] It was further adapted as a ten-episode drama for BBC Radio 4 by the writer Ivan Jones in 2002.

A new adaptation by Ali Taylor was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum and was performed at the Polka Theatre, London in 2011.[5] The play was directed by Adam Penford[6] and starred Chris Coxon, David Kirkbride, Claire Sundin, Scott Turnbull, Matthew Brown and Michael Imerson.[7] This adaptation was published by Nick Hern Books in 2012.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The machine gunners" (1976 U.S. hardcover edition). Library of Congress Catalog Record. Retrieved 2012-09-05.
  2. ^ (Carnegie Winner 1975). Living Archive: Celebrating the Carnegie and Greenaway Winners. CILIP. Retrieved 2012-07-09.
  3. ^ "70 Years Celebration: Anniversary Top Tens". The CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children's Book Awards. CILIP. Retrieved 2012-07-09.
  4. ^ The Machine Gunners at IMDB
  5. ^ Events at the Polka Theatre
  6. ^ The Machine Gunners at the Polka Theatre
  7. ^ Review of the play by Susan Elkin of The Stage (25 February 2011) at Chris Coxon's website
  8. ^ The Machine Gunners (stage version) at Nick Hern Books

External links[edit]

Preceded by
The Stronghold
Carnegie Medal recipient
Succeeded by
Thunder and Lightnings