After helping to kill the Red Baron 100 years ago, a Canadian hero finally gets his due
While there’s some debate over who dealt the final blow to the infamous First World War ace, Canadian fighter pilot Arthur Roy Brown is being recognized for his service and legacy.
Canada’s most fascinating military relic stands sentinel in a private collection overlooking downtown Toronto, little known and seldom seen. To the naked eye, it is a curiously contoured chunk of aluminium. Just a chair, really. But to those few who know, it is so very much more: here, flanked by windows overlooking University Ave., stands the actual cockpit of warfare’s most famous pilot, Manfred von Richthofen, who shredded the skies over the First World War as the Red Baron, single-handedly downing at least 80 allied aircraft.
The seldom seen cockpit of the Red Baron. The seat has pride of place in the private collection of the Royal Canadian Military Institute in downtown Toronto. (ERIC MORSE / RCMI)
It is the seat from which von Richthofen flew his final sortie as the ace-of-aces; the seat in which he died precisely 100 years ago, on April 21, 1918.
The Red Baron’s death would prove doubly portentous: it dealt a body-blow to German morale so severe as to hasten war’s end, yet it created a vacancy into which a young Hermann Goering soon would fly as the final commander of von Richthofen’s elite fighter winged unit, Jagdgeshwader 1 — better known as “The Flying Circus.” Goering would survive, converting his reputation as a fearless ace pilot into political currency, ultimately pledging fealty to Hitler, founding the Gestapo and leading the Luftwaffe into a new world war.
Where does Canada fit in all this? It’s a story too seldom told, reckons Ryan Goldsworthy, curator of the private collection at the Royal Canadian Military Institute (RCMI), where the famed flyer’s cockpit holds pride of place.
Rarely available for viewing by the general public, RCMI museum curator Ryan Goldsworthy is welcoming visitors to see the cockpit that has been in their possession since 1920. (ERIC MORSE / RCMI)
The Canadian story begins with a group of young volunteers from Carleton Place, Ont., and most notably one Capt. Arthur Roy Brown, who in the spring of 1915 seized upon the dream of entering the war as flyers. The first obstacle: The technology was so new Canada had yet to establish an air force. Brown and his friends were told that if they could find a way to privately take flying lessons, Britain would welcome them into the newly established Royal Naval Air Service.
It is difficult to overstate the audacity of what came next. The “flying machine” in 1915 was still newer than Twitter — yet it was about to evolve at breakneck pace. Brown and his friends decided their best option was to go directly to the source of controlled air flight — they signed up for lessons at the Wright Brothers School of Aeronautics in Dayton, Ohio. The drill in Dayton was to achieve at least three solo flights adding up 40 minutes of airtime, perform two figure eights and somehow land without crashing and dying. Brown and his friends passed.
A vast library of books, films and pop culture marginalia surround the life and times of the Red Baron. His elite Flying Circus team would later provide British comedy troupe Monty Python with the second half of their name. Modern-day supporters of the Canadian credited with ending his career insist Roy Brown has long been woefully overlooked.
Yet it was a very much a team effort, military historians agree. The encounter between the two squadrons began with Brown spotting the Germans and wobbling his wings to signal attack. He also signalled for his least experienced pilot, an old school friend, Wilfrid Wop May, to remain above the fray at 12,000 feet rather than engage.May obeyed, at first. But minutes later he abandoned the plan, unable to resist an enemy machine beneath him. He dove, fired, missed and then scrambled chaotically toward Allied lines. Von Richthofen saw it all — and, we can only presume saw it with anger, as the target of May’s bullets happened to be the Red Baron’s cousin, Wolfram. The Red Baron chased the weak Canadian bird across the Somme River into allied territory, looking for an easy kill. And Brown, seeing his old friend in utter peril, dove fast, lining up his Sopwith Camel and firing a single machine gun burst.
Moments later, the Red Baron wobbled, and crash landed just north of the village of Vaux-sur-Somme. And here, to the chagrin of Brown’s supporters, is where a very large caveat is always attached to the story. British and Australian ground fire soared skyward as the enemy machine crossed. A significant portion of latter-day First World War researchers — a preponderance, even — hold that Australian ground fire, not Brown’s gun, likely delivered the fatal bullet. That caveat infuriates Brown advocates such as Maj. (Ret.) Don Harris, a veteran Canadian Army reservist whose interest in the story was piqued years ago after he heard it from Brown’s younger brother Rusty.
The fact is, we’ve never treated Roy Brown like the Canadian hero he was — regardless of the Red Baron story. Roy Brown was under tremendous strain in those months leading up to April 21. He got food poisoning, he lost weight, he couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t go to the mess and enjoy the company of his colleagues at night. He was a wreck. He only sustained himself on bread and wine, Harris told the Star.
Brown took no pleasure in killing other men, he saw it as killing machines. He was quiet, he was modest, and the great achievement was in keeping all his men alive. And it cost him his physical health. He died young after coming home. So, I got involved to help get Roy Brown get recognized for himself, not as the killer of von Richthofen.
Yet another entanglement to the Red Baron story is the more recent theory that von Richthofen was, in his final months, operating in a deeply diminished state, having sustained a serious head injury in a previous dogfight. Among the evidence, latter-day scholars emphasize the fact that the he broke several of his own golden rules — among them, never fly low over enemy lines — on his final flight.
Amid all the competing theories, Brown is now finally getting his due. Among recent developments is the establishment of the Roy Brown Society, which has established a virtual museum collating a trove of original documents, including Brown’s original Wright Brothers pilot certificate. (captroybrown.ca).
For years, it was sort of like the Kennedy bullet — the whole who shot the Red Baron thing, said society founder Rob Probert. But I feel we are way past that now, acknowledging his crucial role in the von Richthofen’s demise while also emphasizing the all the other facets of Brown’s courage and service. He was remarkable — and at the same time so neglected. We are righting that wrong.
Brown’s niece, Carol Nicholson of Oakville, notes that Brown would have been more than happy to give all credit to the Australians for delivering the fatal bullet.
Roy Brown was not about trophies. He was the opposite. And when he died in 1944, that was at the height of World War II, so he was buried in an unmarked grave amid concern that Nazi sympathizers might do damage to the burial site of the man who shot down the big German hero.
A few years ago, a remarkable 11-year-old schoolgirl from Uxbridge — Nadine Carter — took an interest in Brown and discovered Brown had been disinterred and reburied after the war at an unmarked grave at the Necropolis in Toronto. Thanks to her efforts, his burial site now is formally recognized. Carter’s efforts helped raise Brown’s profile, leading to formal induction in Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.
Quite apart from the Red Baron’s cockpit, a companion relic at the RCCI on University Avenue speaks volumes. Framed under glass is a scrap of fabric from von Richthofen’s plane featuring the Iron Cross — and emblazoned with the signatures of Brown’s entire squadron from a century ago.
A section of the fabric triplane (with Iron Cross) of the Red Baron. The Iron Cross relic was signed by every pilot in Brown’s squadron 100 years ago. (ERIC MORSE / RCMI)
One last piece in the Brown puzzle emerged in the reporting for this story. Though Brown rarely spoke of his war experiences upon his return to Canada, we came across his words buried at the end of a 1934 article in the Toronto Star archives — a clip that neither his living relatives, nor the RCCI and not even the Roy Brown Society had ever seen before.
The Star splashed the news that Brown had been formally recognized, 18 years after the fact, with the killing of the Red Baron, in the official British history of the war. A reporter was dispatched to chase Brown for his reaction and found him working late into the night at the offices of General Airways Ltd. — he was now, at the height of the Great Depression, trying to establish a bush-pilot airline into the Canadian wilderness.
No, I am not particularly interested now, Brown shrugged when the Star informed him of this official recognition, of which he knew nothing. The words that followed suggested he looked back upon his exploits as the folly of youth — a necessary folly, but folly all the same, he seemed to believe.
I could not really fly in those days. I was never taught to fly in the army. I knew how to take off from the ground and get down again and I could throw a machine around the sky. That was all — the rest I picked up in the school of experience,
Brown said. Our pilots might not have flown so well from a war standpoint if they had a lot of flying knowledge. The factors that made most for success were a quality of what might be described as foolhardy recklessness and the ability to make instant decisions.
By MITCH POTTER Toronto Star Foreign Affairs Writer, April 20, 2018
Captain Arthur Roy Brown, DSC & Bar, (23 December 1893 – 9 March 1944) was a Canadian First World War flying ace credited with ten aerial victories. The Royal Air Force officially credited Brown with shooting down Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron (who seems in fact to have been shot down by ground fire). What is less well known is that Brown never lost a pilot in his flight during combat, a rare distinction for an air unit commander of that war. This was due largely to his demands for a breaking in period in which new pilots flew over the fights just to see how they worked.
Brown was born to upper-middle class parents in Carleton Place, 30 miles (50 km) west of Ottawa. His family home still exists, located at 38 Mill Street, just down from the Town Hall. He was the middle of five children. He had two older sisters, Margaret and Bessie, and two younger brothers, Horace and Howard. His father had started business as a miller but branched out into electrical generation when the first power grids were being set up around the start of the 20th century. His father eventually owned a power company in the town.
Though Brown did well in high school, he transferred to a business school to study accounting to eventually take over the family business. Following this course, he wanted to continue to university to study business administration, but he needed his high school matriculation, which he technically did not have. He took a course at the Victoria High School in Edmonton from 1913 to 1915 to get his high-school diploma. There he befriended Wilfrid R. “Wop” May.
Brown enlisted in 1915 as an Officer Cadet at the Army Officers’ Training. As a prerequisite to joining the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), Brown received flight training at the Wright Flying School near Dayton, Ohio, from September to November 1915. He was awarded Aero Club of America Pilot’s Certificate No. 361 on 13 November and was confirmed as a flight sub-lieutenant in the RNAS on the 15th.
Brown set sail for England on 22 November 1915 and underwent further training at Chingford. On 2 May 1916, Brown crashed his Avro 504 emerging apparently unscathed, though next morning he experienced severe back pain as he had broken a vertebra. He spent two months in hospital and in September 1916 was posted to Eastchurch Gunnery School. In January 1917, he was sent to Cranwell to complete advanced training.
In March 1917, Brown was posted to No. 9 Naval Squadron, flying coastal patrols off the Belgian coast in Sopwith Pups. In April, B Flight, which included Brown, was attached to the Army’s Royal Flying Corps to assist during the Battle of Arras. Brown fell ill at this time and missed Bloody April, a period when British casualties were very high. In June 1917, Brown was posted to No. 11 Naval Squadron, and in July he was briefly posted to No. 4 Naval Squadron before returning to No. 11 Naval Squadron later that month. On 17 July, he achieved his first kill, an Albatros D.III, while flying a Pup, and gathered another three unconfirmed kills.
No. 11 was disbanded in mid-August 1917, and Brown returned to No. 9, equipped with the Sopwith Camel. He was promoted to flight lieutenant on 1 October, and on 6 October, Brown was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). His citation read:
Acting Flight Lieutenant (now Flight Lieutenant) Arthur Roy Brown, RNAS. For the excellent work he has done on active service. On 3 September 1917, he attacked a two-seater Aviatik, in company with his flight. The enemy machine was seen to dive down vertically, the enemy observer falling over on the side of the fuselage shot. On 5 September 1917, in company with formation, he attacked an Albatross scout and two-seater, driving them away from our lines. One machine was observed to go down apparently out of control. On 15 September 1917, whilst on patrol, he dived on two Aviatiks and three Albatross scouts, followed by his flight. He dived several times and picked out one enemy scout, firing about 200 rounds, when the enemy machine went down out of control, spinning on its back. On 20 September 1917, whilst leading his flight, he dived on five Albatross scouts. Flight Lieutenant Brown picked out one enemy machine and opened fire. One of his guns jammed, but he carried on with the other. The enemy machine went down out of control and over on its back, and remained in that position for about thirty seconds, whilst Flight Lieutenant Brown continued firing until his other gun jammed. The enemy machine then disappeared in the clouds, still on its back. Another officer of the same patrol was later followed by four enemy machines, as he was separated from the formation. Both Flight Lieutenant Brown’s guns were jammed, but he dived on the enemy machines and drove them off, thus undoubtedly saving the pilot’s life.
Soon after, Brown was made a flight commander, a role in which he excelled. No. 9 was posted to the Somme area in early 1918 and was forced to retreat during the German spring offensive between 20 and 29 March. The tempo of operations increased, with the entire squadron typically flying two missions a day. Colonel Raymond Collishaw noted on an April visit that Brown looked exhausted: he had lost 25 lb (11 kg), his hair was prematurely turning grey, and his eyes were bloodshot and sunken. Also contaminated rabbit had left him severely sickened with gastritis. Against Collishaw’s suggestions, Brown refused to quit flying, and shot down another two aircraft on 11 and 12 April.
On 1 April 1918, the RFC and RNAS were merged into the Royal Air Force. Brown’s No. 9 Squadron RNAS became No. 209 Squadron RAF.
Manfred von Richthofen; Wop May
On the morning of 21 April 1918, No. 209 was on patrol when they became engaged in combat with fighters of Jagdstaffel 11, led by Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. A newcomer to No. 209, Brown’s school friend, Lt. Wilfrid Reid Wop May, had been instructed to stay clear of any fight and watch. May noticed an enemy pilot doing the same thing. That pilot was the Red Baron’s cousin, Lt. Wolfram von Richthofen, who had been given the same instructions as May. May attacked Wolfram and soon found himself in the main fight, firing at several fleeting targets until his guns jammed. May dived out of the fight, and Manfred von Richthofen gave chase down to ground level. Brown saw May in trouble and dived steeply to rescue his friend. His attack was necessarily of short duration, as he was obliged to climb steeply to avoid crashing into the ground, losing sight for the moment of both Richthofen and May.
What happened next remains controversial to this day, but it seems highly probable that Richthofen turned to avoid Brown’s attack, and then, instead of climbing out of reach of ground fire and prudently heading for home, remained at low altitude and resumed his pursuit of May, who was still zig-zagging, as he had not noticed that Richthofen had been momentarily distracted. It should be noted that it would have been physically impossible for Richthofen to have done this had he already received the wound from which he died. May and Richthofen’s route now took them at low level over the heavily defended Allied front line. Franks and Bennett have suggested that Richthofen had become lost, as the winds that day were blowing the wrong way, towards the west, and the fight had drifted over to the Allied side. The front was also in a highly fluid state at the time, in contrast to the more common static trench lines earlier in the Great War, and landmarks can be confusing in very low-level flight.
Australian Army machine gunners on the ground fired at Richthofen, who eventually crashed near the Australian trenches. His initial combat report was that the fight with Richthofen was indecisive – this was altered by his commanding officer to decisive. Modern historical consensus suggests that Australian anti-aircraft gunner Sergeant Cedric Popkin is the person most likely to have been responsible for the shot that downed the Baron.
Brown was officially credited with the kill by the RAF, shortly after receiving a Bar to his DSC, at least partly in recognition of this feat. The citation read:
Lieutenant (Honorary Captain) Arthur Roy Brown, DSC. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. On 21 April 1918, while leading a patrol of six scouts, he attacked a formation of 20 hostile scouts. He personally engaged two Fokker triplanes, which he drove off; then, seeing that one of our machines was being attacked and apparently hard-pressed, he dived on the hostile scout, firing all the while. This scout, a Fokker triplane, nosedived and crashed to the ground. Since the award of the Distinguished Service Cross he has destroyed several other enemy aircraft and has shown great dash and enterprise in attacking enemy troops from low altitudes despite heavy anti-aircraft fire.
Nine days after the combat with von Richthofen, Brown was admitted to hospital with influenza and nervous exhaustion. In June, he was posted to No. 2 School of Air Fighting as an instructor. He was involved in a bad air crash on 15 July and spent five months in hospital. He left the RAF in 1919 and returned to Canada where he took up work as an accountant. He also founded a small airline in 1928, General Airways Limited and worked for a while as editor of Canadian Aviation. When World War II started, he attempted to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force but was refused. He instead entered politics, losing an election for the Ontario legislature in 1943. He later purchased a farm near Stouffville, Ontario. Brown was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame in 2015,
Brown died on 9 March 1944, of a heart attack, in Stouffville, Ontario shortly after posing for a photograph with a current Canadian flying ace, George Beurling. He was 50 years old. He is buried, with his wife, Edythe, in the Toronto Necropolis.
Memorials, tributes and relics
Sometime in 1918, Brown acquired the seat of the Fokker triplane in which Richthofen made his final flight; in 1920 he donated his souvenir to the Royal Canadian Military Institute. A memorial plaque titled Captain A. Roy Brown, D.S.C. 1893–1944, was erected at the Carleton Place Public Library by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, in memory of Brown.
In November 2012, the town of Carleton Place further paid tribute to Brown with a prominent mural on the town’s main street. Town Councillor Rob Probert told those assembled for the official unveiling, that, as he beheld the mural, he knew, this was a work of consequence and not just a piece of art dressing up a piece of the main street. A museum dedicated to Brown was also opened in Carleton Place.
In 2015, Brown was posthumously inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.
By Unknown – A.R. Brown, Imperial War Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9016041