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This Complete Story taken from The Wizard issue 1798 July 30th 1960

I always call at Harry Harper’s when I’m due for a haircut. It’s a bit out of my way, but I like to have a chat about old times, when we were in the war together. When I go in the shop, I always make the same greeting: “How’s the Demon Barber? Busy, Harry?” Harry always grins and says, “Not as busy as I was that time in 1944.”

What I’m going to reveal to you now is the story behind that seemingly commonplace question of mine and Harry’s answer. You’ll also see why I call him the Demon Barber. Harry hadn’t been a barber for long when the war broke out. He immediately joined the Royal Air Force, and eventually became a sergeant air-gunner, flying in Wellingtons for Bomber Command. During a raid on German locomotive marshalling yards at the town of Hamm, the aircraft was badly hit by anti-aircraft fire. The crew had to bale out, and were picked up by German police almost right away. I met Harry when he arrived at Stalag Luft Ten. I had been at this German prison camp for captured airmen for a couple of months by that time. I’d been taken prisoner when the Hampden I’d been flying in was shot down by a German night fighter. Harry was put in our hut, Hut 15, and got the bed above me. We slept in double-tiered bunks, fifty of us to a hut. One of the first things Harry said to me when he had settled himself in was: Look, chum, I don’t want to sound personal, but how come your hair is such a shocking mess? What did the barber use – a knife and fork?” Barber?” I snorted. “You’re in a prison camp now, pal, not a luxury hotel. We don’t have barbers here. We cut each other’s hair when it gets a bit long.” “Blimey, no wonder everyone round here looks a sight, then,” Harry grinned. “Looks as if it’s a good job the Jerries captured me. Haircutting was my job in civvy street. I’ll better get to work on you lot.” Next day a part of the hut was roped off as “The Barber’s Shop.” But there was no swivel chair, no fancy hair aids or anything like that. There was a wooden box for a seat and a broken piece of mirror hung on the wall facing it. Each customer had to bring along his own towel to put round his neck to stop the shorn hairs going down his shirt. Harry was slow at first. It took him a couple of days to get his hand in again after his interlude of operating the triggers of a turret’s gun-firing mechanism. After that his old skill came back. Now you’ll easily understand that a prisoner-of-war’s worst enemy is boredom, and we all had to face a lot of it. But Harry was kept busy and time did not hang so heavily on his hands. Of course, the Germans found out that Harry was cutting hair, but they didn’t stop him. For several reasons it suited them to have a prisoner do the haircutting, and, in fact, they gave him a pair of clippers. They were old and rusty, but Harry got them into working order. Often there were queues outside our hut. Every prisoner in camp became a customer of Harry’s. Every prisoner but one, that is! The solitary exception had the top bunk next to Harry. Sometimes Harry would look across at him and say with mock seriousness: “You’re a barber’s worst enemy, Tom. You ought to be bloomin’ well ashamed of yourself with a head like that! You’re the sort that puts a poor barber out of work!” For Tom Twining was completely bald. That was why he was the only one in the camp who hadn’t passed through Harry’s hands. It wasn’t that Tom was an old man. He was a young man who, because of some defect in his hair, had gone bald. Tom would grin and chuckle, “More men should adopt my style, Harry. Much cooler in the summer!” Harry would scowl and pretend to be furious. Now, like most prisoner-of-war camps, ours had an escape committee. Tom Twining was the brains behind it. He had designed and planned the escape tunnel which we were working on at the time. The entrance to it was in our hut. Yes, you’ve no doubt guessed it – it was in “The Barber’s Shop.” Under the wooden box on which Harry’s customers sat when they came for a haircut. Every day two short sections of the floorboards were taken up and men went down the tunnel, two at a time. Then the boards were replaced with the box on top of them, and the men spent hours scraping away earth and passing it to the surface. It was a painfully long job, but we made progress. It was planned that the tunnel should emerge about twenty yards outside the perimeter wire of the camp. The Germans had an idea that something was afoot. They made surprise raids on all the huts, trying to catch us out. But they never did. If they came during the day, there was always someone seated on the box in the barber’s shop having a haircut. That looked so natural that “ferrets” as we call the searchers, never thought of shifting him. If they came at night – well, that was the most obvious time to be tunnel-digging, so we never did so. Otto, as we called the camp commandant, was a very jumpy bloke indeed, and was scared stiff of getting into trouble with his superiors in Berlin. Every so often, when his suspicions of an escape plot became overpowering, he would call in the German special police. They had a place at the nearest town to the camp, and they were experts at tunnel-finding. But each of their raids proved fruitless, thanks to the thorough way Tom made us cover up our tracks. It was clear to us that the police were becoming annoyed with Otto for calling them out on wild-goose chases. Our escape committee had planned that, when the day of the break-out arrived, only six men would be able to go. For in Germany during the war it was impossible to move a yard without being able to produce identity papers. No escaped prisoner stood a hope of getting across Germany to a neutral country without these papers. We had skilled artists among us who were able to produce almost perfect forgeries of these papers. However, it was such a long, complicated job that they were able to supply only six completed sets. It was decided that lots should be drawn for five of the places, and that the sixth should go to Tom. This was because he was the essential member of any escape group. He spoke flawless German, and he was familiar with Germany itself having travelled extensively across it before the war. Nobody could hope to make a getaway without Tom to lead them. When the lots were drawn. I wasn’t one of the lucky ones. Harry wasn’t either. We stifled our disappointment and wished those who were to go, good luck.

The day arrived at last when the tunnel was only two feet from the surface. “Tonight’s the night,” Tom announced. “The two ‘moles’ on duty today will take the tunnel to within six inches of the breaking-out point. That final six inches will be cleared by the group when it breaks out tonight.” In spite of ourselves, there was an air of tension throughout the whole camp that day. The Germans must have sensed it, for Otto sent his ferrets to comb through the huts once more. We had our drill off perfectly. Within ten seconds of the alarm being given that the ferrets were on their way, we had a man seated on the box having his hair cut and all signs of loose earth cleared away. When the ferrets stormed into our hut, it was a natural enough scene. Some of us were lying in our beds reading, others were playing cards and so on. There was the usual queue lined up for Harry. These extra men made it easy for us to confuse the ferrets when they began to count the numbers in the hut. They didn’t spot that we were two men short. The missing men, of course, were our ‘moles’ in the tunnel, digging it out to those last six inches. Yes, Tom Twining had certainly planned cleverly and elaborately. Perhaps the cleverest move of all was that Harry was able to pass messages to the men in the tunnel even when the Germans entered the hut. Do you know how he did it? Remember we were all air crew. We all knew the Morse code. Well, Harry went on snipping with his scissors, seemingly just cutting the hair of the bloke on the box, but at the same time passing on a message in code for the two ‘moles’ in the tunnel to lie still. Well, the ferrets pried and prowled. All the time we egged them on with sarcastic comments which confused and annoyed them a great deal. Harry kept on with his haircutting, and, as usual, they took that for granted. They gave in at last and trudged across to the next hut. We watched them carefully through the window until they were out of sight. Then we signalled to the chap sitting on the box to get up and move it away from the entrance to the tunnel. Our two moles would be getting short of air. He shifted the box and floorboards, and Tom called: “All clear, lads! You can come up for a breather.” And at that second the door swung open and a ferret marched in! “Where is Sergeant Schmidt?” he demanded. “Has he been through this hut yet?” We stood petrified where we were. Because of the way we were grouped we were hiding the entrance to the tunnel. The ferret hadn’t seen it yet. But I could hear the slight sounds of the two moles as they prepared to lever themselves up. This meant the whole game was up. After all that toil, a few hours before the break-out the tunnel was to be discovered! Tom saved the situation with fast thinking. “I’m fed-up with you idiots barging in here!” he shouted. At the same second he brought up his fist in a perfect uppercut to the ferret’s jaw. The German dropped like a log, out for the count. Seconds later our two men emerged from the tunnel. We all heaved sighs of relief, but Sid Bailey was looking worried. “You’re in real trouble now, Tom, socking a German like that. You’ll be in the cooler for a month.” The “cooler” was a punishment cell where prisoners could be kept in solitary confinement. Tom shrugged. “It’ll be worth it. It saved the tunnel.” “But that means there can’t be any break-out tonight,” I said. “They can’t go without you.” “We’ll just have to put it off until I come out, then.” But Sid was shaking his head. “No, it will have to be now. All those passes and papers we’ve prepared will be out of date in a month’s time, and it will take ages to produce a new set. Besides, the tunnel’s ready.” We looked at each other. I said, “It all happened so quickly, maybe the ferret won’t know who it was who socked him.” Tom nodded, but it was clear that he was very doubtful. “There’s certain to be an identity parade,” he said. He stood frowning in perplexity. Then he went on, “Get the floorboards and the box in place again and cart the Jerry outside. Maybe we can think of something yet.” A crowd of us propped up the still unconscious guard, then, hiding him among us, strolled seemingly casually round the huts. We dumped him outside the staff barracks. As we made our way back to the hut, I said to Harry, worriedly – “I wonder if the ferret will be able to pick Tom out on an identity parade?” “I’m certain he will,” Harry replied, looking at Tom’s bald head. “I mean, you couldn’t mistake that anywhere, could you.” I looked at Harry. It was then I had my sudden inspiration. I said, “Well, Harry, it’s up to you to make sure they do mistake him.”

Roll-call was called for six o’clock that evening. We wondered why the commandant was taking so long to have his identity parade. Then he saw the cars of the secret police arriving, so we knew that what he was waiting for was them. We were called on parade at last. The members of our hut, fifty of us, were ordered to stand in a separate group. Then Otto marched on to the parade ground. He was accompanied by two police who looked bored as they always did when Otto called them in. Also with him was the ferret, who was looking pale. Otto began one of his speeches, so we all prepared for a long stand. Once Otto got going, he was very hard to stop. He got more and more worked up until he was almost foaming at the mouth. At last he got to the point. There was a savage among us, he said, a brutal thug who had dared to strike a German soldier. He would be punished with the utmost severity, and the secret police would see to that. Now, he said, the culprit would be picked out. And there would be no doubt in finding him, for the soldier beside him would recognise him with no trouble at all. There was a long pause, while he looked at the police to make sure they saw what a tough egg he was. Then he ordered all the men of Hut 15 to remove their caps. He said to the police dramatically – “All we have to look for is a prisoner with a bald head!” We all removed our caps. Otto’s face was a picture. His jaw dropped and his eyes popped. The police looked at us; they looked at Otto. Then they laughed in his face, turned about contemptuously and walked off. Why? Because every member of Hut 15 had a shiny bald head. Harry had worked like a demon to shear us so that we were all like Tom. Now you’ll understand why I call him the Demon Barber. When Harry’s turn came. I had done the needful for him. It was impossible to pick out the culprit. Otto was never the same man after that. He screamed and shouted at us. He took away all our privileges and ordered us to be confined to our hut for a week on bread and water. That didn’t upset us. The escape went as planned that night without a hitch. And, in time, the six escapers reached Sweden.

Yes, I still go to Harry Harper to have my hair cut. Perhaps it would be truer to say tidied up, because there’s hardly anything for him to cut. My hair never grew properly after that time he cut it in Stalag Luft Ten. However, Harry always consoles me by saying, “Never mind, pal. It was worth it, just to see that look on Otto’s face!” And it was!


© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2003