Book review

The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall (1975)

A boy's dream, becomes a nightmare. Well, perhaps his dream was a nightmare all along. Chas McGill is about thirteen in 1940. He lives in a small Tyneside town, in the industrial north-east of England, which is subjected to terrible bombing raids. The tea-time call-out is the worst. The air-raid siren goes just as supper is dished up and everyone must run for the Anderson shelter. Do you take your egg and chips with you or leave them until later? Sometimes you are in the shelter all night. Do you lie awake all night wondering if there's going to be a direct hit? Or do you fall into an uneasy sleep at last? And when you come out in the morning, how do you feel when you see that your friend's house simply isn't there any more?

No wonder Chas feels insecure:

Ever since he was little, Dad had meant safety: large, solid, bristly-faced, smelling of tobacco. His thumb always grew in three segments, where he had hit it with a hammer while he was an apprentice.
But could any grown-up keep you safe now? They couldn't stop the German bombers. They hadn't saved Poland, or Norway or France. Or the battleship the German submarine torpedoed in Scapa Flow itself.
Their own air-raid shelter at home - it wasn't as safe as the Fortress. It was only covered with a foot of soil. Couldn't Dad have done better than that?
He looked at his father, and saw a weary, helpless middle-aged man. Dad wasn't any kind of God any more

So, naturally, when Chas comes across the tail end of a German bomber plane, complete with machine-gun, crashed and hidden in the dense wood, he wants the gun for himself. At first, it is just a souvenir. But the idea to use it against the Germans comes shortly afterwards.

On one level this is an exciting story of how a group of children overcome all kinds of difficulties to pursue their project. Chas and his chosen friends build a warren of air-raid shelters connected by tunnels, with a machine-gun emplacement, in the derelict garden of a bombed-out house. Apart from dealing with suspicious parents and the class bully, the children also deflect the interest of the police and the Home Guard, who would like to recover the machine-gun, if only they could find it.

On another level, this is a very sad story. It's very difficult to grow up during a war. Nicky loses his father at sea, and his mother in a direct hit on their house. Clogger is spending the war with his aunt because his mother is dead and his father is serving in the Navy. The school is closed because it was hit by an enemy aircraft. All the children are anxious and insecure. Well, actually, the grown-ups are all anxious too, so they don't have a lot of spare energy for the emotional demands of the children.

So, having a German machine-gun is one big thing, but how on earth do they capture the German gunner? You'll have to read the book, but Rudi, hiding away from reality with them in their bunker, becomes a friend and father figure to all the children. What a difficult role he has! He could obviously overpower the children and escape from them, but where would he go? Should he repair the machine-gun for them, as they want him to? His own loyalties become confused as affection grows between the group in the bunker. He isn't the only confused one - Nicky wants to go back to Germany with Rudi!

It's a very difficult situation, and it can't go on for ever. Everything becomes unraveled quite suddenly one night when the long-awaited German invasion seems to be taking place ...

What can I read next?

This is a very powerful and atmospheric book, which will leave you with a lot to think about afterwards. Robert Westall has written many books. If you like this story set in the Second World War you might like to look at this one by him:

  • The Kingdom by the Sea

The Machine-Gunners also reminds me of this one by by Bernard Ashley, because it is a story about a young boy shouldering the burdens of war.

If you like the idea of children taking on adults, and beating them at their own game, you might like to look at this one by Robert Swindells:

Or this straight-forward war time adventure story by Martin Booth should keep you entertained:

And this one by Rachel Anderson will keep you glued to your seat. Set in the future, rather than the past, but don't let that put you off:

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