The Curious Tale of Two Roy Browns

A case of mistaken identity dogged them throughout their flying careers—which one shot down the “Red Baron”?

In June 1975 a man named Roy Brown was elected to the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame. Eager for a story, Ottawa journalists wrote him up as the man who shot down the German flying ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen during the First World War. They were wrong; Roy Brown of Winnipeg, although a distinguished aviator in his own right, was not the man who defeated the “Red Baron”. That exploit was performed by a different Roy Brown, from Ontario. This was just the latest episode in a case of mistaken identity which dogged the pair throughout their flying careers, and the confusion persists to this day.

To those “in the know” it is easy to see how the muddle came about. There were many parallels in the lives of the two men, who were much of an age. Arthur Roy Brown was born at Carleton Place, Ontario, 23 December 1893, the eldest child of Mr. and Mrs. J. Morton Brown. He was always known as Roy. Three years later, Francis Roy Brown was born at Stockton, Manitoba. He, too, used his second name.

From an early age the Ontario Brown was intrigued by the idea of flight. He and some friends were responsible for what may have been the first UFO sighting in the neighbourhood when they managed to attach lights to a kite which they flew above the community at night, to the amazement of the townsfolk.

At the outbreak of the First World War, A. Roy Brown, an excellent athlete, wanted to join the air service but at that time he did not possess the private pilot’s certificate which was a prerequisite. Determined to be accepted, he learned to fly at the Wright Brothers’ flying school in Dayton, Ohio, qualifying as a civilian pilot in 1915.

He frequently had to shoo cows away from the air strip before his aircraft could take off. Being airborne in the pioneer era was a risky business; during his flying career he suffered 27 fractures, and he once lay for hours on a slab in the morgue, officially ticketed as dead.

When Brown first volunteered for war service, he failed the medical and was rejected. Refusing to give up, he persisted until he was finally given a commission as a Flight Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service. His dream almost ended during his training at Chingford, England, when back injuries, caused by another crash-landing, kept him in hospital for some time.

He reached France in 1917, having been posted to No. 9 Squadron, Royal Naval Air Service, flying Sopwith Pups and Triplanes. In the summer of 1917 he also served with Squadrons No. 3 and No. 11, participating in missions to protect the British Navy from enemy air attack. As time went on these operations were extended to include reconnaissance work.

Meanwhile, young Francis Roy Brown also volunteered for service when war broke out. As a member of the Canadian Cycle Corps he soon found himself in Europe, where he saw service at Ypres, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

In 1917 he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps for pilot training and, having qualified, went into action once more as a member of No. 204 Squadron. His new career was shortlived. He was shot down over Belgium in 1918, shortly before the Armistice was signed.

No. 9 Squadron had been attached to the Royal Flying Corps and issued with Sopwith Camels. Back in Carleton Place the anxious family of A. Roy Brown learned from his letters home that the fighting, both on land and in the air, had escalated to serious proportions. They were glad to know that their son was equipped with what he described as “the best machines we could possibly get. We can keep the Hun pretty well in his place in the air.”

In the thick of vicious air fighting in 1917-1918, A. Roy Brown distinguished himself by downing at least 12 enemy aircraft. In addition to putting these out of action he also managed to save the life of a comrade who was under attack by four enemy pilots. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry.

The official citation noted that:

On the 3rd September, 1917, he attacked a two-seater Aviatick, 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 the 5th September, 1917, in company with formation, he attacked an Albatross scout and twoseater, driving them away from our lines. One machine was observed to go down apparently out of control.

On the 15th September, 1917, while on patrol, he dived on two Aviaticks 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 the 20th September, 1917, whilst leading his flight, he dived on five Albatross scouts. Flight Lieut 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 Lieut 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 Lieut Brown’s guns were jammed, but he dived on the enemy machines and drove them off, thus undoubtedly saving the pilot’s life.

Intense air fighting took place in the spring of 1918, and it was during that time that A. Roy Brown engaged in his famous aerial battle with Baron Manfred von Richthofen, a member of the renowned “Flying Circus”.

The official award for the defeat of von Richthofen was given to Captain Brown who later received a Bar to his DSC, although not specifically for that achievement. His success was hotly contested by Australian machine gunners who had been shooting into the air from ground level.

Brown said later that there wasn’t much glamour in the fight which vanquished the Red Baron. During the “dog fight” he had already downed one aircraft when, pulling out of a dive, he noticed that one of his friends was being chased by a German fighter, red in colour. Brown rushed to the rescue. The comrade he saved was his friend, “Wop” May who later achieved fame back in Canada as a bush pilot.

At the time. Brown didn’t know that his adversary was Germany’s leading knight of the air, the daring aristocrat who had shot down 80 Allied aircraft.

Describing the adventure years later. Brown commented “I never saw Richthofen until ten minutes before I shot him down. Then, he was to me merely a begoggled unknown, hunched in the cockpit of his red triplane.”

The defeat of the glamorous von Richthofen was a real morale booster for the Allied airmen. It was then that Francis Roy Brown began receiving congratulations from people who assumed that he was the fearless Canadian who had just put the Red Baron out of action. At that point, of course, both men were attached to the Royal Flying Corps.

After the war, the two Roy Browns returned to Canada, where each man continued with his flying career in civilian life. At that point they had never met.

F. Roy Brown served with Western Canada Airways at The Pas and Cranberry Portage, Manitoba, later becoming superintendent and chief pilot of their prairie airmail operations, working out of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. When the government cancelled that service he became chief pilot for Canadian Airways Limited in the Lac du Bonnet region of Manitoba.

In 1934, together with J. Moar, Milt Ashton and Ted Stull he organized Wings Limited. This was a bush-flying outfit which was later re-organized as Central Northern Airways.

A. Roy Brown also took up bush-flying work, in Northern Ontario. He, too, later owned his own company. This coincidence led to further confusion in the minds of his fellow Canadians. On one occasion a prospector, who had been flown into the North by the Manitoba Brown, boasted to friends that he had travelled with the man who shot down von Richthofen. They pointed out his mistake, but he insisted that he was right; the pilot had mentioned his wife, Edith, and everyone knew that this was the name of the Carleton Place flier’s wife. As it happened, both women were called Edith.

In 1929, an aircraft containing important mining officials was lost in the Northwest Territories. A rescue operation was mounted by Western Canada Airways and F. Roy Brown and eight other pilots spent ten weeks searching in the remote Baker Lake and Bathurst Inlet regions of the Northwest Territories. It so happened that Brown’s aircraft was also forced down in this rugged terrain. He spent three weeks on a remote lake in the Barrens, trying to survive in temperatures which went as low as -50°F.

The story had a happy ending when both groups of missing men were found alive. This time it was an amused A. Roy Brown who received the good wishes of an admiring public.

Finally the two men ran into each other at a convention, where they discussed the situation. They laughingly agreed that they even looked somewhat alike. They became friends, but it reached the point where the Manitoba man, on being introduced to new people, would immediately say “I didn’t shoot down von Richthofen!” which also led to misunderstandings because of the controversy that had arisen since the war, with the Australians claiming that honour.

The trauma of his early flying experiences and the many crashes he suffered had taken their toll on the health of Arthur Roy Brown, who died in 1944 at his home in Stouffville, Ontario, at the early age of 50 years. As the word of his death spread, wreaths and tributes poured into the home of Francis Roy Brown.

He, however, was far from dead. At the time of the Second World War he went on to have a distinguished career as a test pilot, working for MacDonald Brothers Aircraft at Winnipeg. During that period he tested more than 2,500 aircraft.

After the war he entered the realm of Provincial politics. From 1953 to 1958 he served as a Liberal member in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, representing the constituency of Rupertsland. He died in 1960.

In 1969, a plaque, one of a series set up throughout Ontario by the Department of Public Records and Archives, was dedicated at Carleton Place, home town of the late Captain Arthur Roy Brown, DSC. There was no chance of any confusion on that occasion; guests of honour included Brown’s widow and his brother, local historian Howard M. Brown. It seemed as if the curious story of the two Roy Browns had, once and for all, been laid to rest, yet there was still another chapter to be played out.

Fifteen years after his death, Francis Roy Brown was elected to the Aviation Hall of Fame, with the following citation: “His contribution as a bush pilot, airmail pilot and World War Two test pilot, coupled with his total commitment to encourage a younger generation of airmen to make substantial contributions to the development of northern flying, has been of outstanding benefit to Canadian aviation.”

As soon as this honour was announced, the story of his famous namesake and the encounter with the Red Baron hit the headlines again.

In Canada today there are people who believe that Arthur Roy Brown also deserves a place in the Aviation Hall of Fame. If this ever comes to pass the confusion will undoubtedly continue. The saga of these two heroes has been a case of mistaken identity all the way.

Text by Carol Bennett McCuaig. This article originally appeared in the February-March 1997 issue of The Beaver.