Who really killed the Red Baron?

After writing about different aspects of the First World War, mostly about the soldiers on the ground, there is a story to be told about some of our Canadian pilots and their contribution to the war.

One of the mysteries of the war is who shot down the Red Baron. German pilot Manfred Von Richthofen shot down at least 80 planes, French, British and Canadian – the most “kills” of any pilot on either side. He was very flamboyant and a daring pilot, and was called the Red Baron because his plane was bright red, intended to bring “the fear of life” into enemy pilots.

Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron
Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron

The Red Baron was the best hero the Germans had in the air, and was the epitome of the German people. He, along with his group known as, among other names, the Flying Circus, really did strike terror into the hearts of the Allied Forces during the First World War. He was almost thought to be invincible – until the day he was shot down, leaving the question: by whom?

There were many Canadian pilots who flew in the First World War. Some gave their lives and some came home alive and distinguished themselves as “aces” and heroes. One of the best-known aces was Billy Bishop, a Canadian pilot who reached 72 kills against his German opponents.

Bishop became a household name in Europe and Canada, going on to become a vice marshall in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was given medals for bravery by King George V.

There were other pilots who fought bravely but this will be for another time. We will concentrate on one pilot: Roy Arthur Brown, or Arthur Roy Brown, as his name is written in some books.

Who was Captain Roy Arthur Brown?

Captain Roy Arthur Brown
Captain Roy Arthur Brown

He was born in Carleton Place, Ontario, a little town in the vicinity of Ottawa, on Dec. 23, 1893, into a large family. When the war broke out, Brown, like thousands of other Canadians, was eager to join the armed forces and fight overseas for King and country. Brown’s parents were against him going to war, but he didn’t listen to them.

There were few flying schools, but Brown persisted and in 1915 became a rookie pilot through the Royal Naval Air Service. He sailed to Europe, taking additional flight training in Chingford, England.

Brown broke a vertebra in a 1916 crash, which left him immobile for quite a while. By 1917 he had fully recovered, and began flying regular scouting missions. He flew with various squadrons, eventually moving to the No. 9 Naval squadron.

Brown settled into his career as a pilot. He was a great flight leader and a fearless pilot who led the squadron no matter the odds or the weather. By November, Brown was an ace and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He was promoted to Flight Commander – not bad for a boy from Carleton Place.

Brown led his crew like they were family. He was the type of person who not only grieved for his own men when they were wounded or shot down, but also thought about the German pilots, who he realized were also human beings.

In 1918 the war was going well for the Allies, but in the air the Red Baron and his Flying Circus would appear through the mist and fog. Brown and his newly named 209th Squadron were ready to fight no matter the consequences.

On April 21, 1918, the Red Baron was on the trail of one of Brown’s pilots, and was ready to shoot him down. The succinct statement on file requires elaboration.

In later years, Brown repeatedly and publicly stated that he had fired from above, behind and to the left of Von Richthofen. There is a plaque accompanying Von Richthofen’s pilot’s seat, which Brown donated to the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto in 1920.

The words on the plaque were dictated by Brown, and read in part, “Captain Brown was flying after Richthofen, and behind him on the left rear, brought him down by the shot mentioned.”

Over the years there have been many different studies, many questions from different German and Allied units. Brown shot a long burst of 300 yards – this added to the confusion. The Australians said they shot the Red Baron from the ground. Other units claimed responsibility. The question still remains to this day: who really killed the Red Baron?

What we do know is that the Red Baron was shot down, his aircraft crashed to the ground and he died in that fateful battle. Second Lieutenant Wilfred May, who was being chased by Von Richthofen, saw Brown firing at the Red Baron during that engagement. Many people have come to their own conclusions, and I will respect their decision.

Brown was very upset by the death of the Red Baron. It could have been him lying there dead. This would leave a mark on Brown for the rest of his life.

Brown became involved in many business ventures. He eventually married and had a family. At one point Brown lived on Wrenson road, a quiet little street in the East End between Woodbine and Coxwell Avenues.

He had a distinguished career as a pilot, forming his own flying business after working as an accountant. He worked for Canadian Aviation magazine, and moved around to different parts of Ontario. In 1943, after a failed attempt to enlist in the air force during the Second World War, Brown pursued political office in the Beach area, but lost.

The next year, on March 9, 1944, Roy Arthur Brown, the great First World War Ace, died and went to that great hangar in the sky.

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