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Literature / The Machine Gunners

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"Some bright kid's got a gun and two thousand rounds of live ammo. And that gun's no peashooter. It'll go through a brick wall at a quarter of a mile."
Sergeant Green, The Machine Gunners

The Machine Gunners, published in 1975, was the first novel written by English childrens and Young Adult author, Robert Westall. Based on his own experiences as a child in Tynemouth during The Blitz, the book is the story of Charles "Chas" McGill, a young schoolboy who collects 'war souvenirs'; pieces of fallen bomb, shrapnel from Anti-Aircraft fire, and other detritus of the bombings.

During one air raid, a German Heinkel bomber is shot down and crashes in the woods near to McGill's home. He finds it one morning and discovers that its rear turret machine gun is still in place, intact and in full working condition. This, he decides, will be the finest war souvenir he's ever collected. It is only during the next bombing that he gains another plan, to gather his friends together to create a fortress of their own to fight the Germans themselves.

But the police and his teachers know someone at the school stole the machine gun from the wreck, and McGill is one of the prime suspects. How long can they keep the gun and its hiding place a secret, from both the adults and McGill's collection rival, school bully Boddser Brown. Things are further complicated when the gang attempts to shoot down a Me 110, causing it to actually be shot down by a trio of three Spitfires. The rear-gunner bails out and manages to blunder into the children's secret fort and be captured by them. They can't let him go; in case he tells the authorities about them. What to do with a captured German airman and a stolen machine gun, especially when the signal of a German invasion comes.

The Machine Gunners was adapted by the BBC for television in 1983 and again for radio in 2002. A stage play by Westall also exists and had a run at the Polka Theatre in London, commissioned by the Imperial War Museum. The book won the Carnegie Medal in 1975 and was voted in 2007 as one of the ten most important children's novels of the last seven decades by the Carnegie Medal panel.

A sequel Fathom Five is set two years later, in which Chas and his friends hunt for a German spy.

Contains Examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Used, since the entire plot revolves around a group of children hiding something highly dangerous from their parents and the authorities. Played straightest with Nicky and Clogger; Nicky's mum is a borderline alcoholic who barely notices his existence and spends more time with the seamen billeted in their house. Clogger has to live with his Aunt, who only pays him any regard because she gets extra rations due to his presence.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: The Fort, which is well-built but strategically in an almost entirely useless position. The Home Guard officers are well-aware of this, but are savvy enough to get the children on-side by complementing the workmanship and officially taking it off their hands for use by the Home Guard.
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Police Constable "Fatty" Hardy. Not the sharpest knife in Garmouth Constabulary's drawer. As Chas McGill puts it:
    "Naw, it was only Fatty Hardy; he cannat catch chickenpox."
  • Black Market Produce: Nicky's house is being used a billet by a group of naval ratings; there's fresh bread and huge tins of real butter lying around open in the kitchen. Turns out these and a steady supply of booze are being smuggled off navy destroyers by several of the sailors.
  • The Bully: Boddser Brown, the Garmouth Grammar School bully and Chas' most avid rival in the great game of collecting war souvenirs.
  • Colonel Bogey March: Used for the 1983 TV adaptation's closing credits.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Confronted by Boddser on the street, surrounded by the bigger boy's gang of followers, Chas opts to clobber his aggressor with his steel gasmask case.
    • Artistic Licence, because civilian gas masks were carried either in cardboard boxes or canvas bags. The Germans had a steel gas mask case as part of the field uniform, but not the British, who used a small haversack
  • Concealment Equals Cover: Averted. From the outset, one of the most major concerns the authorities have about the missing machine gun is that, in the wrong hands, its bullets can accidentally kill people some way off by going through walls. Indeed, towards the end of the novel, the police sergeant pursuing Chas and the gun gets a lead precisely because a bullet from the weapon lodged in someone's wall.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Suggested of Nicky's mum, who seems to have turned to alcohol and drunken sex with the sailors billeted with her out of grief after the death of her husband and Nicky's father at sea.
  • Dumb Muscle: Played somewhat literally in the form of John Barrowlee, a disabled adult with the mental age of a young child. Chas and friends recruit John to help them build their fort because he's so much stronger than any of them. He's not actually mute, but the only thing he's able to say coherently is "Where you going now?"
  • Friend or Foe?: The Home Guard averts this trope with the Polish force after realizing that there was no enemy invasion and that the Poles were merely acting on their own to the rumors. This is later played straight when the Poles, having failed to find any Germans, aid the police in searching for the children, who assume they are German by their language and fire upon them, causing both sides to believe they are German invaders.
  • Gang of Bullies: Boddser has his little club of followers to go with his "official bully" status.
  • The Glasses Come Off: Chas gets Boddser to take his off before they start fighting; so he can't be blamed for breaking them.
  • Gun Stripping: At one point the children strip the gun down, and then realise they don't know how to reassemble it.
  • Honor Before Reason: Invoked by the Headmaster of Garmouth Boys Grammar before caning Chas for his method of fighting Boddser.
    "British boys do not use weapons, they fight with their fists!"
    • The novel treats this rather cynically, however, by the sheer fact that Chas was outnumbered by a gang of bigger boys who would have beaten Chas to a pulp had Chas not used his weapon, and the self-righteousness of the adults is undercut with an element of hypocrisy in that there are rather a lot of British boys fighting a war with guns (i.e. weapons) at that very moment.
  • I'll Pretend I Didn't Hear That: Which is how Stan Liddell, Captain of Garmouth Home Guard, deals with his Sergeant-Major's methods of acquiring guns and ammunition by mild deception and his 'real army' friends. The Sergeant refers to this as "winning things."
  • It Works Better with Bullets: After surrendering to what he thinks is a group of soldiers armed with a machine gun, Rudi is annoyed to find it's a bunch of kids whose machine gun doesn't work.
  • Just Plane Wrong: The 1983 TV adaptation changed the downed German bomber from a Heinkel He 111 to a Junkers Ju 52. Shame that the Ju 52 was only used as a bomber during the 1939 invasion of Poland and was being exclusively used as a transport plane by 1941.
    • The dorsal gun position on a He 111 is located just behind the cockpit area. Had an aircraft of this type broken up as described in the novel the machine gun in question would have ended up in the laundry building along with the wings and engine.
  • Kick Them While They Are Down: Clogger does exactly this to Boddser Brown. With steel-toed boots, no less.
    • Chas does it to Boddser, continuing to hit him with the metal case for his gasmask even after he's knocked Brown down.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Even the protagonist and his group of friends are mean, initially, to Benjamin "Nicky" Nichol, the posh kid from the big house.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Garmouth is a fairly obvious version of real North Eastern town, Tynemouth, where Westall was born and raised. At least, to anyone familiar with the area.
  • Not-So-Abandoned Building: In order to help conceal the location of the Fort, the gang spread rumours about Nicky's bombed-out house being haunted by the ghosts of dead sailors. They also put up fake War Office signs warning of unexploded bombs and minefields.
  • Oop North: Aye lad, we're gannin' oop North for this ane. Justified, since it's set in the North East of England and based on the writer's own childhood there.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: A very mild case in the 1983 TV version - Chas uses his actual gasmask, rather than the metal case to beat Boddser Brown.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: A fairly key plot point: this is a book in which a group of children somewhere between 11 and 16 steal a fully-loaded, fully-functional aircraft-mounted machine gun and several thousand rounds of ammunition. It happens at less metaplot level when they capture Rudi; he's petrified that they'll accidentally kill him or themselves with his Luger pistol, which they casually hand around whilst it's cocked and loaded. So much so, he goes out of his way to show Clogger how to uncock the gun and operate the safety catch.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Chas' grandad is a World War I veteran who, if he hears the rattle of kettle lid whilst it's boiling, will lapse into remembering his days in the trenches (the noise reminds him of the rattle of machine gun fire).
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Rudi is one of the Punch-Clock Villain Nazis, without much deep-seated loyalty to Der Führer.
  • Tomboy: Audrey; described as being a girl who has hockey muscles, skinned knees and is as good at climbing drainpipes and trees as most boys.
  • Try and Follow: The police suspect the children are hiding the missing machine gun, so try following them to their hideout. Chas enjoys leading them through a swamp and various other places an adult policeman is too big or heavy to follow. He gets a nasty shock when his pursuer keeps following him — because he's actually another child, Boddser Brown.
  • Violent Glaswegian: "Clogger" Duncan, a kid relocated from Glasgow to Garmouth as his father is serving and his mother is dead. Lives with his drunken Aunt and Uncle and is mean fighter with his steel-toed boots. The 'violent Glaswegian' stereotype gets conversed; after Clogger lays a savage beating on Boddser at Chas' behest and Clogger confronts him about his not being very happy with he result:
    "So you'll no be speaking to me anymore. You've nae time for Glasgow hooligans. It was you who said to do him proper."
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Chas gets hit with this after pulling what pretty much everyone except him thinks was an unacceptably dirty move in his fight with Boddser Brown.