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Roy Brown and the “Flying Circus”

August 2016

Canada has a proud military heritage and many notable Canadians have distinguished themselves in the service of their country.  One such Canadian is WWI flying ace Captain A. Roy Brown, a pilot who twice earned the Distinguished Service Cross.  Brown would achieve fame for being the pilot officially credited with shooting down the most famous German pilot of the Great War:  Baron Manfred von Richthofen; “The Red Baron.”

Arthur Roy Brown was born to upper-middle class parents on 23 December 1893 in Carleton Place, near Ottawa.  Brown originally planned to enter the family business but with the Great War already into its second year, he enrolled as Officer Cadet in the Canadian Army Officers’ training program.  However, Brown was drawn more to aviation than trench warfare and thus considered joining the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), but was discouraged by his father due to the high casualty rate of RFC pilots.

Instead, Brown decided on the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), a potentially safer option since naval airmen concentrated more on coastal patrols instead of combat missions.  An ironic choice as it turned out.

As a requirement for service in the Royal Naval Air Service, Brown travelled to Dayton, Ohio to attend the Wright Flying School for flight since the Toronto Flying School was full.  He received his certification on the Aero Club in November 1915 after only 6 hours of flight time.

After joining the RNAS in Ottawa, along with several of his friends, he was appointed Temporary Probationary Flight Sub-Lieutenant.  Brown was sent to England on 22 November 1915 for further flight training at Chingford.


On 2 May 1916, Brown suffered a broken vertebrae after he crashed his AVRO 504 aircraft.  He spent the next two months recuperating in hospital.

After recuperating Brown was posted to Eastchurch Gunnery School in September 1916 Brown, and four months later was sent for advanced training at Cranwell some four months later.

Brown was posted to No. 9 Naval Squadron in March 1917 and flew a Sopwith Pup on Belgian coastal patrols.  The squadron participated in occasional bombing raids, but their main mission was defence of the North Sea fleet from German seaplanes.

In April 1917, “B” Flight of No. 9 Naval Squadron, which included Brown, were attached to the RFC during the Battle of Arras, but Brown became ill and was sidelined until June, something that may have spared his life when a new German aircraft, the Albatross Dill, was wreaking havoc with Allied aeroplanes during a time period the RFC would call “Bloody April.”

After recuperating, Brown was posted to No. 11 Naval Squadron, which was primarily a training squadron, for a brief period before being posted to No. 4 Naval Squadron a month later and then back to No. 11 Naval Squadron later the same month, flying a variety of Sopwith aircraft, including Pups, Triplanes and Camels).

Brown shot down his first aeroplane on 17 July 1917 when he shot down a German Albatross Dill near Nieuport.  Brown was later promoted to Flight Lieutenant and shot down up to three further enemy aircraft while with No. 11 Naval Squadron.  Unfortunately these were not added to his official score as a pilot since these were not confirmed kills.

Brown returned to No. 9 Naval Squadron in August 1917 following the disbandment of No. 11, now flying a Sopwith Camel.

Brown was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on 6 October 1917 in recognition of past successful missions, but in particular for coming to the aid of a lone Allied pilot under fire from four German Albatross aircraft.  Brown flew directly at the German aircraft, since his guns had jammed, causing them to scatter.  Ten days later, Brown was promoted to Acting Flight Commander.

Following the amalgamation of the RFC and the RNAS into the new Royal Air Force (RAF) on 1 April 1918, Brown’s Squadron was renamed No. 209 Squadron.  He was appointed a appointed Captain under the new rank structure and the squadron posted to the Somme area.

It was in the Somme that Brown added kills 8, 9 and 10 to his score, the last one on the morning of 21 April 1918 being his most famous.  On that day, Brown’s squadron fought a hard battle against the elite German fighter squadron, Jagdgeschwader 1, the so-called “Flying Circus” or “Richthofen’s Circus”, led by Manfred von Richthofen, the war’s highest scoring fighter pilot with 80 aerial victories.

At one point during the battle, Richthofen, piloting his red Fokker DR.I, was in a low altitude pursuit of a Sopwith Camel piloted by Brown’s friend and former schoolmate, Canadian pilot Lieutenant Wilfred “Wop” May.  Brown dived his aeroplane at Richthofen, causing him to briefly disengage from May, but he quickly resumed the pursuit with Brown still chasing after him, firing his guns.  It was around this point that Richthofen was hit with a .303 bullet.  Richthofen managed to hang on long enough to crash land his aeroplane on a hill near the Bray-Corbie road, just north of the village of Vaux-sur-Somme, an area controlled by the Australian Imperial Force.  Brown was awarded a bar to his DFC for his actions that day.

However, controversy continues to this day as to whether it was actually Brown who shot down Richthofen, as members of the Australian 14th Artillery Brigade laid claim for the kill.  What is not in doubt is that Brown was actively firing his guns while in pursuit of Richthofen around the time his red Fokker DR.I fell out of the sky.

Although he now had 10 kills to his credit, Brown was still affected by what he had done.  Upon seeing 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”.

Richthofen was given a full military funeral on 22 April 1918, conducted by the personnel of No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps.

Roy Brown left the RAF in 1919 and returned to Canada, where he worked as an accountant.  He founded a small airline and was the editor of Canadian Aviation.

Brown attempted to re-enlist for WWII, but was declined.  He instead ran for a seat in the Ontario Legislature in 1943, but lost.

Brown died on 9 March 1944 in Stouffvile, Ontario, at the age of 50.  He was buried in Toronto’s Necropolis Cemetery.

In the years after his death Brown was honoured with a memorial plaque dedicated to “Captain A. Roy Brown, D.S.C. 1893-1944”, at the Carleton Place Public Library by the Ontario Heritage Foundation.

In November 2012, the Town of Carleton Place erected a mural on the side of a the “One Stop” Government Shop building, the constituency offices of Scott Reid, Member of Parliament and Randy Hillier, Member of Provincial Parliament, at 224 Bridge Street as a tribute to Brown.  A museum dedicated to Brown was also opened in Carleton Place.

Sources:  http://www.firstworldwar.com/bio/brown.htm, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Brown_(RAF_officer), http://www.billybishop.net/brown.html, http://www.ottawacitizen.com/entertainment/Probert+town+councillor+president+Brown+Society+stands+front+recently+painted+mural+Carleton+Place+dedicated+memory+Brown+Canadian+pilot+credited+with+downing+Manfred+Richthofen+Baron+April+1918/7567576/story.html.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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