Canada’s most fascinating military relic stands sentinel in a private collection overlooking downtown Toronto, little known and seldom seen.
To the naked eye, it is a curiously contoured chunk of aluminum. Just a chair, really.
But to those few who know, it is so very much more: here, flanked by windows overlooking University Ave., stands the actual cockpit of warfare’s most famous pilot, Manfred von Richthofen, who shredded the skies over the First World War as the Red Baron, single-handedly downing at least 80 allied aircraft.
It is the seat from which von Richthofen flew his final sortie as the ace-of-aces; the seat in which he died precisely 100 years ago, on April 21, 1918.
The Red Baron’s death would prove doubly portentous: it dealt a body-blow to German morale so severe as to hasten war’s end, yet it created a vacancy into which a young Hermann Goering soon would fly as the final commander of von Richthofen’s elite fighter winged unit, Jagdgeshwader 1 — better known as “The Flying Circus.” Goering would survive, converting his reputation as a fearless ace pilot into political currency, ultimately pledging fealty to Hitler, founding the Gestapo and leading the Luftwaffe into a new world war.
Where does Canada fit in all this? It’s a story too seldom told, reckons Ryan Goldsworthy, curator of the private collection at the Royal Canadian Military Institute (RCMI), where the famed flyer’s cockpit holds pride of place. Saturday afternoon, some 50 of the institute’s members, mostly retired military men, will gather to commemorate the events of a century ago, when two young Canadian flyers tangled with — and got the better of — von Richthofen.
Goldsworthy is mindful that, in light of the centennial, public access matters. If you or anyone you know wants to see the cockpit and hear the story, he is happy to oblige. “You can publish my email — [email protected] — I’d love for more people to see it and know it.”
The Canadian story begins with a group of young volunteers from Carleton Place, Ont., and most notably one Capt. Arthur Roy Brown, who in the spring of 1915 seized upon the dream of entering the war as flyers. The first obstacle: The technology was so new Canada had yet to establish an air force. Brown and his friends were told that if they could find a way to privately take flying lessons, Britain would welcome them into the newly established Royal Naval Air Service.
It is difficult to overstate the audacity of what came next. The “flying machine” in 1915 was still newer than Twitter — yet it was about to evolve at breakneck pace. Brown and his friends decided their best option was to go directly to the source of controlled airflight — they signed up for lessons at the Wright Brothers School of Aeronautics in Dayton, Ohio.
Imagine, for want of a 2018 analog, waltzing up to Elon Musk and saying, “So, how’s the SpaceX interplanetary system coming along? We’re ready to sign up for the Mars!”
The drill in Dayton was to achieve at least three solo flights adding up 40 minutes of airtime, perform two figure eights and somehow land without crashing and dying. Brown and his friends passed.
A vast library of books, films and pop culture marginalia surround the life and times of the Red Baron. His elite “Flying Circus” team would later provide British comedy troupe Monty Python with the second half of their name. Modern-day supporters of the Canadian credited with ending his career insist Roy Brown has long been woefully overlooked.
Yet it was a very much a team effort, military historians agree. The encounter between the two squadrons began with Brown spotting the Germans and wobbling his wings to signal attack. He also signalled for his least experienced pilot, an old school friend, Wilfrid “Wop” May, to remain above the fray at 12,000 feet rather than engage.
May obeyed, at first. But minutes later he abandoned the plan, unable to resist an enemy machine beneath him. He dove, fired, missed and then scrambled chaotically toward Allied lines. Von Richthofen saw it all — and, we can only presume saw it with anger, as the target of May’s bullets happened to be the Red Baron’s cousin, Wolfram. The Red Baron chased the weak Canadian bird across the Somme River into allied territory, looking for an easy kill. And Brown, seeing his old friend in utter peril, dove fast, lining up his Sopwith Camel and firing a single machine gun burst.
Moments later, the Red Baron wobbled and crash landed just north of the village of Vaux-sur-Somme. And here, to the chagrin of Brown’s supporters, is where a very large caveat is always attached to the story. British and Australian ground fire soared skyward as the enemy machine crossed. A significant portion of latter-day First World War researchers — a preponderance, even — hold that Australian ground fire, not Brown’s gun, likely delivered the fatal bullet.
That caveat infuriates Brown advocates such as Maj. (Ret.) Don Harris, a veteran Canadian Army reservist whose interest in the story was piqued years ago after he hearing it from Brown’s younger brother Rusty.
“The fact is, we’ve never treated Roy Brown like the Canadian hero he was — regardless of the Red Baron story. Roy Brown was under tremendous strain in those months leading up to April 21. He got food poisoning, he lost weight, he couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t go to the mess and enjoy the company of his colleagues at night. He was a wreck. He only sustained himself on bread and wine,” Harris told the Star.
“Brown took no pleasure in killing other men, he saw it as killing machines. He was quiet, he was modest and the great achievement was in keeping all his men alive. And it cost him his physical health. He died young after coming home. So I got involved to help get Roy Brown get recognized for himself, not as the killer of von Richthofen.”
Yet another entanglement to the Red Baron story is the more recent theory that von Richthofen was, in his final months, operating in a deeply diminished state, having sustained a serious head injury in a previous dogfight. Among the evidence, latter-day scholars emphasize the fact that the he broke several of his own golden rules — among them, never fly low over enemy lines — on his final flight.
Amid all the competing theories, Brown is now finally getting his due. Among recent developments is the establishment of the Roy Brown Society, which has established a virtual museum collating a trove of original documents, including Brown’s original Wright Brothers pilot certificate. (captroybrown.ca).
“For years, it was sort of like the Kennedy bullet — the whole who shot the Red Baron thing,” said society founder Rob Probert. “But I feel we are way past that now, acknowledging his crucial role in the von Richthofen’s demise while also emphasizing the all the other facets of Brown’s courage and service. He was remarkable — and at the same time so neglected. We are righting that wrong.”
Brown’s niece, Carol Nicholson of Oakville, notes that Brown would have been “more than happy” to give all credit to the Australians for delivering the fatal bullet.
“Roy Brown was not about trophies. He was the opposite. And when he died in 1944, that was at the height of World War II, so he was buried in an unmarked grave amid concern that Nazi sympathizers might do damage to the burial site of the man who shot down the big German hero.”
A few years ago, a remarkable 11-year-old schoolgirl from Uxbridge — Nadine Carter — took an interest in Brown and discovered Brown had been disinterred and reburied after the war at an unmarked grave at the Necropolis in Toronto. Thanks to her efforts, his burial site now is formally recognized. Carter’s efforts helped raise Brown’s profile, leading to formal induction in Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.
Quite apart from the Red Baron’s cockpit, a companion relic at the RCCI on University Avenue speaks volumes. Framed under glass is a scrap of fabric from von Richthofen’s plane featuring the Iron Cross — and emblazoned with the signatures of Brown’s entire squadron from a century ago.
One last piece in the Brown puzzle emerged in the reporting for this story. Though Brown rarely spoke of his war experiences upon his return to Canada, we came across his words buried at the end of a 1934 article in the Toronto Star archives — a clip that neither his living relatives, nor the RCCI and not even the Roy Brown Society had ever seen before.
The Star splashed the news that Brown had been formally recognized, 18 years after the fact, with the killing of the Red Baron, in the official British history of the war. A reporter was dispatched to chase Brown for his reaction and found him working late into the night at the offices of General Airways Ltd. — he was now, at the height of the Great Depression, trying to establish a bush-pilot airline into the Canadian wilderness.
“No, I am not particularly interested now,” Brown shrugged when the Star informed him of this official recognition, of which he knew nothing.
The words that followed suggested he looked back upon his exploits as the folly of youth — a necessary folly, but folly all the same, he seemed to believe.
“I could not really fly in those days. I was never taught to fly in the army. I knew how to take off from the ground and get down again and I could throw a machine around the sky. That was all — the rest I picked up in the school of experience,” Brown said.
“Our pilots might not have flown so well from a war standpoint if they had a lot of flying knowledge. The factors that made most for success were a quality of what might be described as foolhardy recklessness and the ability to make instant decisions.”