(Skipper page)

CAPTAIN ZOOM Birdman of the R.A.F.

First episode taken from The Skipper issue: 512 June 22nd 1940.


The Crazy Professor


Darkness shrouded the Hartz Mountains of Germany. Not a glimmer of light showed anywhere. For one thing, the hour was very late, and for another, the black-out rules were strictly enforced. Down through the black clouds swooped something like a giant bird. Silently, swiftly, it dropped out of the sky, but the figure was not that of any known bird; it was the figure of Captain Zoom, Birdman of the R.A.F. Somewhere in the dim distance, receding rapidly towards the south-west, sounded the drone of an aircraft motor. The plane which had dropped the Birdman was heading for France. The wings which supported Captain Zoom were made of some light but tough leathery substance. They were fastened to a pack which was secured by straps to the shoulders of the wearer. On his chest was a control panel with switches and several resistance-coils. At the moment he was only known to his squadron pals as Captain Zoom because under that name he had thrilled Britain with his daredevil exploits in an air circus before war had broken out. At the moment he was only gliding, but when he wished, he could switch on an electric motor which would enable him to fly like a bird. He belonged to Squadron 479, based “somewhere in France.” Before the outbreak of the war he had been working on this winged invention, and had had big hopes for it, but when hostilities broke out the Government had turned down all idea of employing such a contrivance. They were too busy making orthodox aeroplanes. When his squadron had crossed the Channel, Captain Zoom had taken his wings with him, and he never went aloft without a small attachment in which the apparatus was packed. His usual flying companion was Flight Sergeant Bob Whitelaw. They were good friends, and Whitelaw was the only man who shared the knowledge of the wings. Often on long-distance flights, Whitelaw had taken over the controls whilst Captain Zoom had donned his birdman outfit, and had made independent flights. In this way they had carried out several daring, unofficial stunts against the Nazis.


Now came one of the greatest opportunities of all. They had recently rescued from Germany a British Secret Service man known as Captain Ranger. He had been brought back to France in a seriously injured condition, but with an important secret. The method of his rescue had taught him the usefulness of Captain Zoom’s wings, though he had been sworn to secrecy. It was because of this that he had recommended that Captain Zoom be sent to the Hartz Mountains to carry out the most important task given to any one man in the present war. Now the Birdman was gliding down to commence his dangerous work. Bob Whitelaw, in a two-seater Defiant, had brought him this far, and would return for him in a week’s time. For, seven days Captain Zoom would depend on himself alone. He knew exactly where he was heading. Captain Ranger had shown him the spot during that dramatic flight when the Secret Service man had been on the point of bleeding to death. High up in the mountains, remote from all villages and roads, was Eagle Peak, a pillar of rock sticking skywards like some natural finger. On top of this had been built a house, a miniature castle, and in this house lived Professor Schinz. Out of the clouds at last, the Birdman spread his wings to hover whilst he picked up his bearings. The house of the German scientist was white, and showed up clearly amongst the rocks. Banking, the airman sped in that direction. He was thrilling with excitement, but the thrill was a pleasant one. At last he had been given a chance of doing something really worthwhile. This Professor Schinz was a half-crazy inventor, an eccentric whom even the Nazis had to handle carefully. In this isolated spot he was working on the creation of an entirely new fuel for aeroplanes. This fuel had such startling qualities that the engines for aeroplanes would in the future be only a quarter their present size, or of four times the power. That meant the Nazi planes would have a vastly superior performance to the British. It meant the R.A.F. would be a back number if the experiments were allowed to succeed. The Birdman’s task was either to secure the formula of the new fuel, or to stop all future research work.


The towering peak came nearer. It was shut in between two mighty cliffs, but quite distinct from them, and a good hundred yards away from either of them. A winding pathway, with many flights of steep steps, was the only approach from the foot of the peak. It was easy to see that one man, well armed and resolute, could have kept back an army from ascending. The top of the peak was entirely occupied by the house. In some cases its walls had merged in with the rock. The house was a large one, but the most peculiar thing about it was the total absence of windows, though on top there was a half-dome which might have been an observatory or lookout. Neither was there any door apparent. “How the dickens do they get inside?” muttered the hovering Birdman, then realised there was doubtless an entrance amongst the rock foundations of the house, an entrance leading into the building from below. He could see no glimmer of light as he headed for the roof, but when he gently alighted close to the glass dome, he realised there were plenty of lights burning, but they were well hidden. The dome itself was made of that peculiar glass which shades light but allows anyone inside to see out. Captain Zoom had sometimes seen the rear windows of cars in England made of such glass, but never a huge dome such as this. Around the bottom edge there were recessed ventilators, and when he had folded back his wings and had gone down flat on his stomach he was able to peer inside. The scene was an amazing one. It was like looking into the operating theatre of a big London hospital. Everything was spotless white. There were operating tables and stretchers, benches filled with complicated apparatus and retorts, an X-ray outfit of tremendous size, other electrical contrivances the uses of which Captain Zoom could only guess, and many other amazing things which his dazed eyes could not take in at once. Blazing daylight lamps poured down a flood of light on the main operating table, where lay the body of a headless man. Gauze and surgical dressings covered the severed stump, but it was quite obvious that the head had been newly removed. The instruments used for this ghastly business lay in their troughs of disinfectant nearby. The Birdman gulped. What did this mean? He had come there to deal with a research chemist who was working on synthetic fuels. Where did these surgical operations come in?


His eyes roved on. A door at one side had just opened, and in came one of the most astonishing figures he had ever seen. The man was short, no more than five feet tall, and his head was unnaturally large, as bald as the proverbial egg. He wore a long surgeon’s smock and the operating mask which usually covered his face had been dropped on to his chest. Below the surgeon’s smock showed huge bare feet, the biggest feet Captain Zoom had ever seen on a human being! They gave him a shock when first he saw them peeping out, but not as much as the shock he got when he saw the man’s face. It was dead-white, like the face of a corpse. Big ears projected on either side like flaps, the eyes were tiny, deep-set, and a blazing blue, the nose was like a beak, and the mouth a mere slit. It was a repulsive face, made even more evil-looking by the cruel grin which twisted the corners of the mouth. The man was chuckling hideously to himself as he stared at the object he carried in his outstretched hands. The Birdman looked at this for the first time, and nearly leapt to his feet in alarm. It was a human head, projecting from a box shaped apparatus, into the top of which it fitted so snugly that it might have been growing there! On the side of the apparatus were numerous switches and gauges. The chuckling man set the whole affair down on the end of the operating table, quite close to the feet of the headless body. The fascinated eyes of the hidden Birdman could not leave the face of the detached head. It was the face of a man who had suffered agonies. Even now the eyes were closed, and the features were in repose, it was possible to see the lines of suffering. “He! He! He! I wonder how he will like the look of himself without his head?” chuckled the hideous little man, and turned two switches in the side of the apparatus. A red light glowed in a tube, there was a very faint buzzing sound, and a terrible thing happened. The face of the detached head began to glow as though with life, the eyes opened, and looked about them in horrified amazement. The little man in the surgeon’s smock leaned down and grinned into this twitching face. “Well, Ernst Weimar, how are you? Don’t you know me, the good Professor Schinz? Don’t you recognise your benefactor?” Professor Schinz! The Birdman’s blood chilled with fear. Why did the crazy scientist speak to a head? Did he expect it to hear and understand him? The eyes of the head became fixed on him unwaveringly, and then something so uncanny happened that Captain Zoom felt like pinching himself. The dead lips wreathed, parted, and shaped words which came forth with a rush. “Why do you torture me? Why do you torture me? Kill me and have done with it, Schinz!” The Professor cackled to himself and studied one of the gauges on the side of the apparatus in which the head was stuck. “You are ungrateful, Ernst Weimar. Don’t you realise you have been chosen to make history? You are the first man who has had his head cut off, but still lives!” The other’s face contorted in nameless terror. The head could not turn, but the eyes looked down, rolled from side to side, and then puckered in awful fear. A shriek rang through the operating room. “No, no, it isn’t true! It can’t be true! It’s only a trick. I cannot be only a head.” “Ja, Ernst Weimar, you are only a head. There lies your body. I will turn you so that you can see it. I, Professor Schinz, have performed a miracle. I have cut off a man’s head, have attached it to an electrical apparatus whilst keeping it partly immersed in a saline solution, and, lo, behold, the head lives, the brain functions, the senses of sight, thought, hearing and speech are still alive. I can keep your brain alive as long as I like by turning this switch. When I turn it the other way, you are as one dead. Is that not a miracle? Aren’t you glad the Secret Police handed you to me for experimental purposes instead of putting you in a concentration camp and shooting you?” The Birdman tottered to his feet and spread his wings. He felt he could stand no more of that horror. He felt he would have to cry out if he remained and watched that ghastly experiment any more. As he sped aloft, his wings whirring in answer to the motor, he could hear the helpless shrieks of the man who still lived even though his head had been detached from his body.


Inside the Eyrie


The cold air and the altitude calmed Captain Zoom down, and he flew over to alight on top of one of the nearby cliffs, where thick bushes promised cover. From there he could see the white house on Eagle Peak, no more than a hundred yards away. All lights were invisible at that distance, but he could still imagine what was going on inside. “Ranger said the professor was crazy!” he muttered. “That isn’t the word for it. He’s a human fiend! He works for the Nazis, trying to find a new fuel for their planes, and in return they supply him with living victims for experiments. That is the lay-out. He cuts up human beings and experiments with them as other scientists with white mice and dogs. Ugh!” His fear was passing. Rage was taking its place. He began to feel that if there was one thing in the world he would enjoy doing, it would be shooting Professor Schinz. Yet he had his duty to think about. He had not been sent here to the Hartz Mountains for this purpose. His job was to obtain that formula or to destroy everything connected with the fuel experiments. Nothing else mattered. A few minutes later he was calm and as cool as ever. He removed his wings and set the apparatus down behind some bushes. He saw it was impossible to get into the eyrie opposite, until he knew more about it. It was necessary to keep watch on the place for a while, to discover the entrance, and the habits of those who lived there. Time passed. Dawn tinted the sky a pinkish hue, and then the outlines of the mountains became visible. The mists began to lift. The world was coming to life again. For the first time Captain Zoom saw men at the foot of the narrow pathway that led to the home of the mad professor. They were Nazi Storm Troopers, and sight of them finished the steadying of the Birdman. They were ordinary human beings, and he knew how to handle them. The guard was changed as he watched, and those who had been relieved were marched away through the woods to the left. Evidently there was a billet or barracks over there. The Germans considered the mad professor’s experiments so valuable that he was kept under constant guard. The sun came up. The Birdman munched some of the sandwiches he had brought with him, and drank some hot coffee from his thermos flask. It made a new man of him. He began to make plans. With him he had a fight, but powerful, pair of field glasses, and with these he followed the winding pathway until it vanished into the solid rock about fifty feet beneath the white building. “H’m, there’s a doorway and a tunnel there,” he murmured. “I suppose that’s the ordinary entrance. I wonder if—hullo!”


A motor cyclist had just emerged from the woods on the mountainside, and rode straight towards the Storm Troopers at the foot of the path. They stepped aside and allowed him to pass. He was also in uniform. Round and round the winding path he rode, until he reached the foot of the first flight of steps. Then he abandoned the motor cycle and climbed the rest of the way on foot, passing into the tunnel under the house, and disappearing from view. Captain Zoom noticed the man had a bundle of letters in his hand, and one or two small packets. He was evidently the official postman. Then the Birdman focussed his glasses on the flat roof beside the glass dome. A movement there had attracted his attention. A trapdoor, which he had not noticed the previous night, had opened, and the head and shoulders of the mad professor appeared. He now wore a red dressing-gown instead of the surgeon’s smock. His bald head glittered like marble in the sunlight, and in his hand he carried a bundle of letters. Strolling over the flat roof to a seat in the recessed wall, he seated himself in the sunlight and began to read his mail. Captain Zoom studied the pale face intently. It was hard to believe the man to be either crazy or a fiend. He looked normal enough opening and reading his letters. Apparently some extra instinct told Schinz that he was being watched. He fidgitted, frowned, and looked about him in a puzzled manner. Captain Zoom lowered the glasses lest the lenses should catch the glint of sunlight. The feeling that he was being watched evidently worried the Professor, for he soon went down through the trapdoor and vanished from sight. The trapdoor remained open, and the Birdman watched it with silent longing. If only he could get inside there! By craning his neck over the edge of the cliff on which he perched, he could see the three Nazi sentries bunched together round one of the morning newspapers which the postman had brought them. They were interested in the news of the war, and when he saw their heads together the R.A.F. man had an idea. Close to where he lay, a large boulder was balanced perilously near the edge of the cliff. Keeping out of sight behind it, he strained with all his might, finally toppling it over into space. Flat on his stomach, he watched it hurtle downwards. The Nazis suspected nothing. They knew nothing until it landed on top of them, crushing two of them under it, and hurling the other several yards to one side. Crash! Shrieks and yells went up.


The Birdman made quickly for his wings, and strapped on the apparatus. Sprinting through the bush, he made for the other side of the gorge in which Eagle Peak stood like a sentinel. From over there he could see soldiers running from the woods to the aid of their comrades. Two male servants had raced down the winding path from the Professor’s house, and when the injured Storm Trooper had been lifted to one side, one of the servants hurried back to the white dwelling. “He’s gone for the Professor, to see if he can help save the man,” thought the R.A.F. man still hidden from sight. As they waited for the Professor, Captain Zoom saw some of the soldiers point upwards at the cliff from which the rock had fallen, and saw them shake their heads. They had no idea it was anything other than an accident. Rocks often fell down in this region, and it was just bad luck that three of their comrades had been below. Presently the Professor appeared hurrying towards the scene, his dressing-gown flapping around his bare feet. He carried a small surgical case. His skill should be able to save the crushed man. Captain Zoom’s chance had come. He launched himself into the air from the other cliff. The house and the peak on which it was built hid him from view of the soldiers. Flying low, he made for the edge of the roof, and alighted safely. Quickly folding back his wings, he crawled to the trapdoor which still lay open, and peered inside. His mouth was drying in horror in anticipation of what he expected to see, but the operating theatre was now unoccupied. The headless corpse had gone, and the living head was not in view. Sighing with relief, he went swiftly down the broad-runged ladder which led to the floor below, and found himself within the eyrie of the mad Professor. He had already gathered that the operating theatre was used only for the Professor’s private anatomical experiments. There must be another laboratory somewhere in which the fuel research work was being carried out. He opened the door through which the Professor had arrived the previous night, and found himself in a dim corridor with another door at the end. He was halfway down this when he realised there were barred doors on either side of him, the doors of cells. There were six in all, and three were empty, but in the others crouched human beings wearing what looked like shrouds. At first the horrified Birdman thought they were dead, but when he peered more closely he saw this was not so.


They were subjects for the mad Professor’s experiments! They were under the influence of drugs. They were all bandaged in various places, and two had queer pieces of apparatus projecting from their skulls. One had no eyes, another was without a face. It was like a vision from a nightmare. No sound came from these luckless creatures. The drugs had killed their bodies but not their brains. Gulping with horror, the young R.A.F. man strode on, reached the further door, and listened. There seemed to be no one on the other side. He ventured to turn the handle and gently open the door. A square, airy laboratory showed before him. There was the smell of newly refined oil in the air, and a tarry odour which might have come from petroleum by-products. This was undoubtedly the place where the all-important experiments were carried out. But the Birdman looked round the well-stocked laboratory, at the numerous benches, the mass of apparatus, the thousands of bottles, test tubes, and containers, his hopes sank. He was not an expert chemist. How was he to find what he wanted midst this mass of scientific material? There was a desk at which the Professor had apparently been making notes. The airman strode towards this, and was halfway across the laboratory when his projecting wings must have touched one of the swinging lights overhead. There was a splintering crash, and a shower of glass scattered over the floor. The noise made him jump. He did not know if there were any other servants left in the house, but if there were they would certainly come hurrying to see what had happened. It was no time to loiter. Running along the corridor between the cells where the living dead still cowered, he scrambled through the operating-room and up the ladder to the roof. A blast of cold, damp air met him on the roof. He was amazed by the change that had taken place outside during the past ten minutes. He had forgotten how banks of mist can sweep along the mountainside at those altitudes. It had been sunshine when he had entered the house; now there was a whirling white mist shrouding everything. He could not even see as far as the foot of the rock where the Storm Troopers had been caught by the falling boulder, but he could hear their voices. It sounded as though the Professor was returning. The mist at least did Captain Zoom one good turn. It shrouded his movements and gave him cover. He took off and flew upwards into the white blanket.


The Man from the Concentration Camp


He soon discovered the mist did not extend upwards for more than a few hundred feet. A belt of it lay along the mountainside. It would probably clear as quickly as it had come. Above and below was clear sunlight. He decided to make the most of the mist. The scant food supplies he had brought with him would not last throughout the day. He needed to renew them. Flying low over the tree-tops, he made for the direction in which he had seen the Nazi soldiers coming. There in a clearing stood two long huts. These were their quarters, now almost completely blotted out by the mist. Narrowly avoiding collision with a tall tree, the Birdman descended at the rear of one hut and crept forward to investigate. Savoury smells guided him to the cook-house. He could hear someone tinkering about inside, and a few moments later a stout Landsturmer emerged with a pile of plates, which he carried into one of the other huts. He appeared to be the only man about the place. Doubtless the others had gone to help bring in their injured comrade, and the bodies of the dead. Captain Zoom glided to the door of the cook-house and peered inside. For the time being it was deserted. He could see saucepans and dixies bubbling on the stove, but it was to the cold food on the shelves that he gave most attention. There were many kinds of sausage, plenty of black bread, numerous cheeses, and a quantity of canned goods. He made a swift selection, stuffed everything into a clean sandbag which he picked from a corner, and swung it over one shoulder. The extra weight would make no difference to his flying, and he could cache the food he was unable to eat that day. It was well to have a reserve. He escaped from the hut without encountering the cook, and made for the rear of the clearing with the idea of taking off once more. It was then he heard a motor car coming slowly up the lower mountain track. It was feeling its way through the mist, and seemed likely to stop at any moment. Captain Zoom got behind some trees to watch. He knew it would have to stop at the huts because the road further on was not wide enough for a car. It was a military car, and when it halted he saw there were at least half a dozen men inside, there being a high officer beside the driver, and several ordinary soldiers in the back, together with a civilian whose eyes were dull and hopeless and whose face and clothing showed distinct signs of man-handling. “Bring him out! We’ll have to go the rest of the way on foot,” growled the officer. “I don’t know why the Professor wants to live in such an outlandish place!” The officer evidently expected to be met by the men from the little camp, but instead of that the cook came shuffling forward and told how there had been an accident in which two of their men had been killed and one injured. “Huh, I’m surprised there aren’t more accidents in this confounded mist!” grunted the Nazi officer. “We’ve got another specimen for the mad Professor. I suppose it’s worth our while to humour his whims, but it means a lot of trouble. If I had my way I’d lock him up in a fortress and force him to work for us.”


Captain Zoom pricked up his ears. He had heard and understood every word. So the poor wretch with the bruised face was going to be handed over to the mad Professor for experimental purposes! That was the price the Nazi party paid the scientist for working for them. Political and other prisoners were given into a worse than living death. It was foul. The group moved towards the narrowing path. The prisoner hesitated, and one of the soldiers struck him heavily in the back with the butt of his rifle. At once the helpless man turned around and roared. “You dirty skunk! If my hands weren’t held, I’d smash your dirty nose for you!” The R.A.F. man tingled with horror. The words were in English. This prisoner was no German political prisoner of the Nazis, but a Briton—maybe a civilian who had been living in Germany when war had broken out or someone captured by a U-boat. The soldiers closed in to beat him still more, but the officer interfered. “Leave the dog alone! We want him still alive when he’s delivered to the Professor or he won’t accept him.” They vanished into the mist, leaving Captain Zoom clenching his hands. Could he stand by and see a fellow-countryman handed over to the barefooted fiend in the eyrie on Eagle Peak? He knew he could not. His manhood rebelled against it. He had been sent there to carry out one certain task, and on no account must he do anything that would spoil his chances of getting the fuel formula, but this need not upset his other plans. Thanks to the mist, he believed he saw a way of saving the prisoner. He had previously noticed there was one part of the pathway which narrowed considerably. It was about a hundred yards front of the path leading to Eagle Peak, and there was a sheer drop of five hundred feet into the valley below. The Birdman took off silently, dived into the thickest part of the mist, and circled to get ahead of the grumbling, stumbling officer who led the party. He glimpsed them at last, the officer in front, then the prisoner with a soldier poking him from behind, and the rest of the Nazi troops at the rear. The officer was watching his feet, for he did not want to stumble. The prisoner was slouching along as though he did not care if he fell or not.


The Birdman drew a deep breath, and dived with the speed of a hawk. There was no warning of his coming, no sound to tell the group of men to look upwards. One second he was nowhere to be seen, the next he had driven both feet into the face of the soldier behind the prisoner, and had sent him crashing backwards against the rest of the Nazis. The officer turned in amazement at the sound of the scuffle. He was just in time to see a huge winged shape seize the prisoner by the shoulders, and then both the prisoner and the winged unknown had toppled sideways over the edge of the precipice. The mist swallowed them up. It was the only way. The wings which supported Captain Zoom so easily were not powerful enough to support a double weight, but they were sufficiently strong to break the fall of two men. Clinging desperately to the terrified prisoner, the airman hissed in his ear. “Don’t be scared. I’m British. I’ve come to save you. Relax and leave everything to me. Don’t struggle!” If the man had struggled it would have been all up, but either through fear or commonsense, he remained limp and passive. The Birdman had switched his small motor on to its fullest extent, and the wings were flapping desperately to try and support the extra load. They failed, but such was their effort that the Birdman and his passenger dropped no more swiftly than in a parachute. The wings caused them to glide sideways rather than to drop straight downwards, and not many minutes later they landed amongst some thick bracken unhurt. The Birdman at once released his hold and shut off his motor, folding back his wings out of harm’s way. The dazed man lay on the ground, breathing hard, and staring at Zoom as though he could not credit his senses. “Who—what are you?” he panted. “I’m a friend—R.A.F. I’ve got you away from those brutes thank goodness. I’ve seen examples of the cruelty awaiting you. Are you fit to climb?” The other nodded. He was still too bewildered to do much talking. He could not take his eyes from the wings. “They’ll probably think I was a giant eagle,” went on the Birdman. “They’ll come down here and look for us, and when they don’t find your body they’ll conclude the eagle carried you away to some eyrie,” He grinned. “There’ll be startling headlines in the German papers about a giant eagle at large in the Hartz Mountains. I’ll get you somewhere safe in the meantime.” The sack containing food was still safely hitched to his belt. He had forgotten all about it in the excitement.


As the mist was likely to rise quite soon, he started for the head of the valley, telling the man to follow. The latter was fast recovering his wits, and soon showed he could climb. They kept clear of the pathways and tracks, and headed up through the pinewoods. By this time Captain Zoom had a fair knowledge of the lay-out of the slopes and cliffs. He wanted to get to the top of the cliff which overlooked Eagle Peak. He could have gone there in five minutes by means of his wings, but he remained close beside the rescued Briton, warning him to keep perfectly still and silent when they heard voices nearby. It was the party of Nazi soldiers hurrying down to look for the “body.” They were excitedly discussing the attack of the giant bird. They had no suspicion that their prisoner had been taken from them by human agency. Once they paused for breath, the rescued man told Captain Zoom his name was Gibson, and that he had been an electrical engineering student in Germany at the outbreak of the war. He had been interned, had got into trouble for striking a bullying guard, and had been handed over to the Gestapo as a dangerous prisoner. After a period of brutality in one of their secret camps, he had been suddenly packed off to this new destination, knowing nothing of what was in store for him. The Birdman gritted his teeth as they continued the climb. More than ever was he thankful he had been the means of saving Gibson from the horrors of the house on Eagle Peak.


© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007