Although Brown expressed interest in joining the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) his father, concerned at the high casualty rate for RFC pilots, declined Brown's request for elementary flying school lessons. Service with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was deemed a potentially safer avenue, since these airmen were less likely to routinely undertake combat missions, instead flying coastal patrols for much of the time.
Consequently Brown, along with three friends, applied to join the RNAS upon the former completing his schooling at Edmonton. Finding that they needed Aero certificates before they could join the RNAS they embarked upon flying lessons conducted at the Wright Brothers school in Dayton, Ohio (the Toronto flying school being full).
On 13 November 1915 Brown emerged from training with his pilot's certificate after just six hours air time. Joining the RNAS in Ottawa along with his friends he was appointed Temporary Probationary Flight Sub-Lieutenant. Brown set sail for England on 22 November 1915 and upon his arrival Brown underwent further training at Chingford.
After entering the Royal Naval Air Service in 1915, he was almost killed when he crashed an Avro 504 during a training flight on May 2, 1916.
He initially emerging apparently unscathed and it was only on the following morning that he experienced severe back pain; upon investigation it was revealed that he had broken one of his vertebrae. In consequence Brown spent the next two months recuperating in hospital.
In September 1916 Brown, by now recovered, was posted to Eastchurch Gunnery School and was sent for advanced training at Cranwell some four months later.He recovered and was assigned to 9 Naval Squadron on the Western Front in April of 1917. Reassigned to 11 Naval Squadron, he scored his first victory on July 17, 1917, shooting down an Albatros D.III while flying a Sopwith Pup. In the fall, he rejoined 9 Naval Squadron to fly Sopwith Camels, becoming a flight commander in February of 1918. In what would become the most famous aerial combat of the war, Brown's flight encountered Jasta 11 on the morning of April 21, 1918. In the battle that followed, Brown scored his final victory of the war. Engaging a red Fokker DR.I he was officially credited with shooting down Manfred von Richthofen. For this action, Brown received a bar to his Distinguished Service Cross. In 1919, Brown left the Royal Air Force and returned to Canada where he worked as an accountant, founded a small airline and became an editor for "Canadian Aviation" magazine.
"At 10:35 a.m. I observed two Albatrosses burst into flames and crash. Dived on a large formation of fifteen to twenty Albatross scouts, D.5's, and Fokker triplanes, two of which got on my tail, and I came out. Went back again and dived on pure red triplane which was firing on Lieutenant Wilfrid May. I got a long burst into him, and he went down vertically and was observed to crash by Lieutenant Francis Mellersh and Lieutenant May. I fired on two more but did not get them."Brown's combat report, April 21, 1918
"If he had been my dearest friend, I could not have felt greater sorrow." Roy Brown, on viewing the body of Manfred von Richthofen
Distinguished Service Cross
"For the excellent work he has done on active service. On September 3, 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 September 5, 1917, in company with his formation, he attacked an Albatros scout and two-seater, driving them away from our lines. One machine was observed to go down apparently out of control. On September 15, 1917, whilst on patrol, he dived on two Aviatiks and three Albatros 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 September 20, 1917, whilst leading his flight, he dived on five Albatros 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 twenty 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 undoubtably saving the pilot's life." DSC citation, London Gazette, November 2, 1917
Distinguished Service Cross (DSC)
"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. On April 21, 1918, while leading a patrol of six scouts he attacked a formation of twenty 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 the while. This scout, a Fokker triplane, nose dived 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." DSC Bar citation, London Gazette Supplement, June 21, 1918
Fighting The Red Baron
On the morning of 21 April, 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. 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 in an attempt to rescue his friend. His attack was necessarily of fairly short duration, as he was obliged to climb steeply to avoid crashing into the ground, losing sight 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 some of the most heavily defended points of the Somme. 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 slowly 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. Upon viewing Richthofen's body the following day, Brown wrote that "there was a lump in my throat. If he had been my dearest friend, I could not have felt greater sorrow". His initial combat report was that the fight with Richthofen was "indecisive" - this was altered by his commanding officer to "decisive". In any case, 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.
After returning to Canada, he married the former Edythe Lois Monypenny and they had three children; Margaret, Barbara and Donald. He took part in organizing General Airways, an air transport company operating out of Noranda, Québec and Haileybury, Ontario. Ill health forced his retirement from this enterprise. In January 1943, he became associate editor of Canadian Aviation magazine. He died on his farm in Stouffville, Ontario.
In 1939 Brown attempted to re-enlist with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) to join the Second World War, but his application was refused. He instead entered politics losing an election for the Ontario legislature in 1943. He died on 9 March 1944 in Stouffville, Ontario shortly after posing for a photograph with the famous Canadian air ace George 'Screwball' Beurling. He was aged just 50.
Prints are offered for sale by the artist Ivan Berryman of the encounter with von Richtofen, and further details are provided as follows.
'Mystery still surrounds just why Manfred von Richthofen risked so much in chasing the novice pilot Wilfred Wop May into Allied-occupied territory on the morning of Sunday, 21st April 1918, but it was to be his last flight, this error of judgement costing him his life. Von Richthofen had broken from the main fight involving Sopwith Camels of 209 Sqn to chase May's aircraft, but found himself under attack from the Camel of Captain Roy Brown. All three aircraft turned and weaved low along the Somme River, the all red Triplane coming under intense fire from the ground as well as from Brown's aircraft. No one knows exactly who fired the crucial bullet, but Manfred von Richthofens aircraft was seen to dive suddenly and impact with the ground. The Red Baron was dead and his amazing run of 80 victories was over. The painting shows May's aircraft (D3326) in the extreme distance, pursued by DR.1 (425/17) and Brown's Camel (B7270) in the foreground.'
A memorial plaque was erected at the Carleton Place Public Library by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, in memory of this local fighter ace.
(Photos: Top: plaque outside Carleton Place Public Library Bottom left: view from street. Courtesy Alan Brown at ontarioplaques.com)
The Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto houses a unique memory of Brownie, donated by the man himself. It's none other than the Red Baron's seat from his Fokker Triplane!
As the Institute says: "In 1920, the Museum acquired its most famous artifact, the seat of Baron von Richthofen's Fokker triplane, donated by Captain A. Roy Brown, a Canadian ace of the First World War, who downed the famous German aviator. The seat continues to amaze visitors interested in early aviation. "
The reader is referred to the excellent scholarship on Roy Brown at this very detailed Canadian site, where the author has collected a comprehensive set of fascinating data and personal letters from Roy Brown. This is a most interesting read. Further fascinating material is at an Australian site about who killed the Red Baron.
There is a film called 'Von Richthofen and Brown' featuring some excellent flying scenes, if of dubious historical accuracy. Among the pilots taking part was Richard Bach, author of 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull' and 'Gift of Wings', both of which are recommended to lovers of flying.
This story has used information from William Ira Boucher's excellent site WW1Aviation.com which the reader is encouraged to read. Additional material by Stefan Pietrzak Youngs from private Canadian sources, the Ontario Heritage Trust and Wikipedia.