The Machine Gunners – Planning Overview

Written by Dan

Are you looking for a novel to engage your students with meaningful discussions about tough topics? Look no further than The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall.

This classic book, set in wartime England, follows the story of a group of young boys determined to uncover the mystery surrounding an old military machine gun.

With themes such as loyalty, adventure and patriotism explored throughout, this text can be used as an educational tool to facilitate conversations around complex subjects while encouraging creativity and critical thinking skills. Here’s an overview of incorporating this text into your lesson plans!

Related: For more, check out our Planning Overview of The Dam by David Almond  here.

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The Storyline of The Machine Gunners

The Machine Gunners, written by Robert Westall in 1975, is a novel about a group of kids growing up in England during World War II. In the aftermath of the war, the kids discover an abandoned German machine gun and decide to create their band of “Warriors” from it.

Led by Chas McGill and his friends, they begin to collect equipment, drill for battle, and train for war.

While practising for their next mission, they accidentally shoot down a Spitfire plane which crash lands in the woods near their home town. The pilot is alive and manages to elude capture by the local police with help from Chas and his friends.

Chas decides they should continue hiding the Spitfire pilot until they can find a way to get him safely away from their town. This leads them to various escapades as they try to keep the pilot safe while evading detection from enemy troops and British authorities.

Eventually, they manage to get him back across enemy lines, but only after getting into trouble.

The Machine Gunners is an exciting adventure story that follows Chas’ journey as he discovers what it means to stand up for your beliefs even when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds.

Themes in Robert Westall’s ‘The Machine Gunners’


The characters of The Machine Gunners show resilience in the face of adversity. Despite being just kids, they are determined and courageous in their mission to help the Spitfire pilot evade capture and make it back across enemy lines.

This story highlights the power of resilience in times of struggle and how holding on to our values can lead us through even the most challenging times.

Overcoming Fear

The characters must confront various difficult situations as they try to help the Spitfire pilot escape, from hiding from enemy troops and British authorities to finding ways around harsh regulations or tight security measures.

They eventually learn to overcome their fear by trusting themselves and each other, allowing them to find creative solutions for any problem that comes their way.

Hope & Perseverance

Despite their obstacles, Chas and his friends never give up hope in finding a way to get the pilot back safely. Their perseverance is rewarded when they finally get him across enemy lines unharmed, providing an inspiring example of how courage can lead us forward even during our darkest hours.

Characters in Robert Westall’s ‘The Machine Gunners’

Chas McGill

Chas is the main protagonist of The Machine Gunners. Growing up during World War II, Chas and his friends discover an abandoned German machine gun that they use to create their band of “Warriors”.

Chas then takes charge of protecting the Spitfire pilot and planning how to help him return safely across enemy lines. Despite being just a kid, Chas leads his group with courage and resilience, showing us that anyone can be capable of great things with enough courage and perseverance.

Fig Jam

Fig Jam is a member of Chas’ gang and one of his closest friends. He displays a dedication to their mission from the beginning, demonstrating a willingness to do whatever it takes for them to succeed.

Fig Jam also provides lighthearted moments throughout the story, such as when he attempts to pass himself off as a German soldier for them to get supplies from their enemies.

Winnie Knox

Winnie Knox is another member of Chas’ gang who helps protect the Spitfire Pilot. She often doubts their mission but does her best to support her friends however she can. Winnie sometimes provides much-needed comic relief with her sharp wit and clever comebacks, making her an essential character in the group’s dynamic.

Teaching Opportunities in Robert Westall’s ‘The Machine Gunners’


This story provides an excellent opportunity to teach the value of resilience and how it can help guide us through difficult times. Through their actions, the characters demonstrate that courage and determination can lead to success even when faced with overwhelming odds.

This message could be used as a way to inspire students to reach for their goals no matter what challenges they may face.

Overcoming Fear

The characters of The Machine Gunners must overcome many fears to help the pilot escape. Through this, we can observe how fear can be conquered by relying on our inner strength and the support of friends.

This teaching opportunity could encourage students to discuss their concerns and explore how they can be overcome with creative solutions and a robust support system.

Teamwork & Leadership

Chas’ leadership skills are essential for his plan to succeed, showcasing the importance of teamwork and delegating tasks appropriately for a mission to go off without a hitch. This example could be incorporated into lesson plans to teach students about leadership styles and how there is often strength in numbers when tackling problems.

Lesson 1: Resilience

Objectives: By the end of this lesson, students will be able to explain the importance of resilience, recognise how it can help guide them through difficult times, and discover ways to build their inner strength.


Begin by establishing the context for the lesson by introducing students to some of the characters in ‘The Machine Gunners’. Please discuss the plot and the challenges Chas and his friends face in their mission. Additionally, point out what makes Chas an exemplary leader and explores why his group succeeded despite facing such significant obstacles.

Main Teaching Points:

Introduce what resilience means and discuss how it played a role in helping Chas achieve his goal. Talk about examples from everyday life where resilience is needed, such as dealing with bullies or finding ways to complete complex tasks.

Please encourage students to share their experiences with resilience or stories they have heard from others that illustrate its importance. Additionally, discuss how courage and determination are necessary for developing internal and external resilience.

Reflection & Key Questions:

Reflect on what has been discussed throughout the lesson and encourage students to think about applying these lessons in real-life scenarios. What are some of the challenges they might face that would require them to use resilience? How would they go about solving these problems? Are there any concrete steps they can take to become more resilient?

Website Resources

The following are links to websites related to Robert Westall’s ‘The Machine Gunners’:


What is ‘The Machine Gunners’ about?

The Machine Gunners is a novel by Robert Westall about a group of kids in 1940s Britain who discover a German aircraft and decide to make it their secret weapon. During their adventures, they learn about the importance of friendship, bravery, and resilience.

Is there any instructional material related to the book?

Yes! On websites such as TES and Literacy Shed Plus, teachers can find helpful resources such as lesson plans, worksheets, and activities that students can use to explore the themes in The Machine Gunners.

Where can I buy a copy of ‘The Machine Gunners’?

You can buy copies of The Machine Gunners from online stores like Amazon or other book retailers.

About The Author

I'm Dan Higgins, one of the faces behind The Teaching Couple. With 15 years in the education sector and a decade as a teacher, I've witnessed the highs and lows of school life. Over the years, my passion for supporting fellow teachers and making school more bearable has grown. The Teaching Couple is my platform to share strategies, tips, and insights from my journey. Together, we can shape a better school experience for all.






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