Wings of Honor
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Wings Of Honor: Biographies

Roy Brown: World War I Fighter Ace

Reprinted with the permission of Miles Constable of "Canadian Air Aces and Heroes"

Roy Brown Arthur Roy Brown was born Dec. 23, 1893 in Carleton Place, 30 miles west of Ottawa, Ontario. Many sources give his name as Royal Brown but this is not correct according to his daughter, who has his birth certificate. He was a physical youth enjoying hockey in particular. He was educated in Carleton Place, but did not do well in high school and took a year off. He convinced his well-off folks to send him for his final high school year to his uncle and aunt in Edmonton to attend Victoria High School from 1913-1915. There he did much better in school and played hockey so well that he was offered a position with a junior team.

As a young man he was shy and intellectual, and suffered from a nagging ulcer. He was not an obvious candidate to be a fighter pilot, except for one thing, he loved flying. As a young man Roy was fascinated with flying. As soon as he finished high school in Edmonton he convinced his parents to send him to Dayton, Ohio to the Wright Brothers flying school. He had to sign papers absolving the Wright Brothers if he was injured or killed while flying one of their light-weight planes, in many ways not much different from the micro-light planes of today. The lessons were expensive, roughly $400 in 1915 but his folks were well off and could afford it. Eventually he got a pilots license (ACA Certificate number 361), this could be after only 8 or so hours in the air, with perhaps half of those solo flying. When WWI started Roy Brown was one of a handful of Canadians ever to fly an airplane.

He joined the Royal Naval Air Service in Canada, as they were paying higher wages for certified pilots than was the Royal Flying Corps. He was appointed a Probationary Flight Sub-Lieutenant in Ottawa, 15 November 1915. He sailed from New York on 2 December 1915 for England. Once there the flying instructors decided he needed more experience so he went to the flying school at Chingford. Disaster struck when he crashed an AVRO 504 in May 1916. He was hauled unconscious from the wreck moments before it burst into flames. His back was broken and he had to spend three months in hospital. It was a long time before he was walking without either a cane or a back brace. In September, 1916 he was posted to the Eastchurch Gunnery School and then to Cranwell in January 1917 to complete advanced training.

Sopwith pup By March, 1917 he talked his way into an active posting with 9 Naval Squadron and began to fly patrols along the Belgian coast in a Sopwith Triplane. The standard duties were to locate German seaplanes, escort bombing missions and watch for Zeppelins returning to their bases. Much to his dismay he was stricken ill until May when he was posted to 11 Naval, then to 4 Naval Squadron. Then he was reposted to 11 Naval Squadron and spent yet another week off sick. At this time 11 Naval were flying the agile, if underpowered Sopwith Pup.

His first kill came in July when he spotted an Albatros DIII below him. He quickly whipped the agile Pup around and dove on the Albatros, firing from 50 yards. He killed the pilot and the plane fell out of control. To Brown it was only part of the job, a distasteful part. He did not take to showing off or bragging about his kills. To him it was a grisly business, not sport as many pilots made it out to be. He concentrated on downing the machine, and preferred not to think about the man in it.

Brown's squadron was posted to the Western Front to assist the RFC in the terrible air battles of the summer of 1917. The brutal style of continuous fighting, with numerous flights and dogfights a day was a rude awakening to the RNAS pilots, who had had a relatively sedate air war compared to the RFC. A new pilot on the Western Front lasted on average 11 days. Once they had survived a month, they were old hands. This may be the reason why pilots such as Richthofen, Collishaw and Bishop were able to rack up the incredible number of kills they did. Many of their kills were of inexperienced pilots who were relatively easy to shoot down.

Brown's Camel (Click to view larger image) They were also provided with one of the premiere fighter aircraft of the late war, the Sopwith Camel. This little fighter aircraft killed more pilots than did the Germans as it was highly unstable and difficult to fly.

Brown demonstrated his flying expertise by easily outmanoeuvring an Aviatik 2-seater and shooting it down. Before September was out he shot down two more Germans (a DFW C type and an Albatros DV) bringing his total to four Out-Of-Control.

In October he rejoined 9 Naval in the Ostend area where he shot down another two aircraft. On October 6 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his victories and for an extraordinary act of courage. In the midst of a large dogfight he had to break off with both of his Camel's guns jammed. Being an experienced pilot he kept an eye out for enemies "on his 6", and noticed a single Allied pilot trying to fend off four Albatroses. Brown whipped his Camel around, and still with jammed guns, flew through the Germans, forcing them to scatter and giving the British pilot a chance to escape.

BROWN, Flight Lieutenant Arthur Roy - Distinguished Service Cross - awarded as per London Gazette dated 2 November 1917.

For the excellent work he has done on active service. On the 3rd 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 the 5th 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 the 15th 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 the 20th 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 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.

He had 2 months of leave in Canada in Nov - Dec., 1917, but then was sent back to the front. Roy Brown was posted to 209 Sqdn Royal Air Force (the RNAS and RFC had been amalgamated, all squadrons received new numbers, so 9 Naval was made 209 Squadron RAF).

On Feb. 15, 1918 he was promoted to Flight Commander. Brown was well liked for his self-deprecating humour, and modesty, but being a Flight Commander was not a welcome task, more stress was added to an already ragged man. He was on the verge of cracking from the stress of battle and responsibility. One German pilot made a point of trying to kill him in his cherry-nosed Camel whenever he spotted Brown. On two occasions he nearly succeeded, riddling Brown's aircraft with bullet holes so that he had to be helped from the planes. All pilots were needed, the German high command realized that a late winter offensive was necessary if they were to break out and defeat the Allies before the Americans arrived. A massive German offensive, called the "Kaiser's Offensive", was on. One hundred divisions of German troops were arrayed against 60 Divisions of Allied troops. The attack drove Allied armies back forty miles in a few days.

It was imperative that the German advance be stopped, all pilots flew four missions a day, many of which were nerve-wracking straffing missions to break up German forces on the attack. The only good thing about it was they flew the new Sopwith Camel F1, a fast, if dangerous aircraft. Flying just feet above the ground firing on troops was an unglamourous, hazardous task, but Brown did it. He was sickened by it, but he did it well. He was one of the best pilots on the front, downing four more aircraft, one on March 22, one each on April 11th and 12, and most importantly one on April 21.

"Wop" May Then his school friend Wilfrid "Wop" May was posted to 209 Sqdn. He was an extroverted party-goer, who arrived two days late for duty due to an extended bash. The squadron commander was furious and ordered May back to England. May asked Brown if he could do anything for him, he didn't want to be shamed into returning to England without fighting in the war. The Major relented only if Brown would take May in his flight.

Raymond Collishaw visited Brown one day in April and was astonished at the poor condition of Brown. He was exhausted, he had lost 25 lbs, his eyes were blood-shot and sunken and his hair was quickly graying. He had been existing for the past month on a diet of milk and brandy for his ulcer and nerves. He was past a nervous breakdown and had a full-blown ulcer. But, despite Collishaw's pleas that he quit flying, he had to continue. No one was exempt from combat flying for anything other than wounds. Collishaw recalled,

"Brown was definitely in a bad way, both mentally and physically, and he was both nervous and had lost his nerve."

The existance at Bertangles did nothing to cheer them. Groups of pilots were known to collectively down a bottle of scotch before a patrol, and certain battle. When they landed they had no diversions, no hot water, just tents in a muddy field. Every morning the field was shrouded in a thick fog. The spring was dreary, with cold rain and wind.

Manfred von Richthofen It was little better at Cappy Aerodrome 45 miles away for the Germans of Jagdstaffel 11, Baron Manfred von Richthofen's Flying Circus. They too were continually cold, wet, stressed out and exhausted. They flew because Richthofen flew. He was 25 and close to being a burned out shell having fought continuously since 1914. He had survived a serious head wound the previous year, and his young cousin Wolfram had just joined the famous Jasta 11.