APPENDIX E: MY FIGHT WITH RICHTHOFEN
In 1927 the US magazine Liberty began publishing articles on the air lighting during the First World War. A short story, developed from an interview with Captain Brown on his career in the RNAS and RAF, was published in the edition dated 6 November 1927 and was later serialised in several newspapers.
Upon transcribing his notes, the copywriter converted serious facts into a thrilling story for boys by ‘jazzing up’ what he had been told and by including additional information drawn from material found in previously published stories. The Anonymous Account was one of them as was an early version of Gibbons’ Red Knight of Germany whose serialisation had just ended in the magazine, so it comes as no surprise that 22 German aircraft are again mentioned. To do the copywriter justice, he, doubtless, was doing his best to make the story interesting by filling in details which Roy Brown had apparently omitted. It is quite probable that the copywriter was merely composing an entertaining story and that it never crossed his mind that his efforts might be taken to represent history or that some of his additions might be seriously flawed. Indeed, some of his effort found its way into the British Official History of the Great War which was being written around this time. Information on the end of the Red Devil was scarce and Liberty seemed to have what was needed.
By a ‘tail wagging the dog’ process, the items ‘borrowed’ from My Fight with Richthofen, and now wearing the clothes of the Official History, have been presented by some as proof that the former represents the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Such had happened once before. Sir Arthur Conon Doyle took the findings of the abandoned sailing ship Mary Celeste (the correct name) as the idea for a thrilling story. He named his ship Marie Celeste and added many mysterious items such as a ticking clock, warm food found on the table and the Long Boat still present. Sir Arthur was most surprised when his artistry was taken to be the latest information and the official history in a shipping company was ‘corrected’ to suit.
Although the title block did not specifically so state, its wording encouraged the reader to believe that Captain Brown had written or at least dictated every word of the story. However, the contents clearly indicate that this was not so. The obvious give-away is the citing of RAF 209 Squadron as existing on 21 March 1918.To have served in 9 Naval Squadron was considered to be a distinction and Captain Brown would not have forgotten the date, 1 April 1918, when the military world around him changed.
Whoever made the final draught was not an aircraft pilot, was unfamiliar with rotary engines and combat instructions and did not know how the most famous Allied and German wartime airmen had been killed. Even worse, he had no idea of the true condition of the pilots seat from von Richthofen’s Triplane which was Captain Brown’s personal trophy of the event, and had been in his personal possession for over one year before he donated it to the Canadian Military Institute’s private museum. In short, My Fight with Richthofen parallels the tale of the Marie Celeste in that more people appear to be familiar with the fiction than the facts.
It would seem that Captain Brown, who had accepted payment for his story, which was published on 26 November 1927, had not been given the right of approval over the final text. This placed him in a difficult position when what had been published as *his version of events’ was challenged by people who had also participated. When the Official Australian Historian asked him for his personal comments on the story, Brown declined the invitation on the ground that he was not a reader of Liberty magazine. The careful wording of his reply, which evades the issue, tells quite a lot. Being short of money, having signed a receipt and with two more stories to be published (Dirty Work at the Cross-roads, 24 December 1927 and Sightliawks the following week) by the same magazine, he would hardly wish to antagonise his benefactor.
In 1971 the Editor of Liberty responded in print to a request for clarification on the authorship. In Volume 1, No.3, he offered the following statement. The operative words are ‘probably’,‘won’t rule out’ and ‘not unusual’.To anyone who reads it carefully, the meaning, written between the lines, is quite clear.
Roy Broirn was paid for the article and probably contributed all or most of the facts. We won’t rule out the possibility that the piece was ghost-uritten but this is not unusual in any national magazine.
As tacitly admitted by the 1971 Editor, the article is a mixture of fact and fiction. Historically speaking, it is extremely dangerous as there is more than enough fact and detail to make the whole story seem to be genuine to anyone unfamiliar with the items, situations and events described.
The most unfortunate part of all is that some recent scholarly works have, in complete innocence, quoted items from earlier well-known works which had in turn derived them from the flawed parts of My Fight with Richthofen. In modern parlance one can say that certain events or descriptions have been ‘laundered’ until their true origin has been lost and they have become accepted truth. They continue to appear again and again, even in major newspapers, when certain anniversaries come around.
A small selection of easily provable deviations from the truth follows below. The page references are for the reprint in Liberty, Autumn 1971,Volume l, No.2.
1. The seat, page 55, middle left.
Starting at the elevator, bullets had ripped their way along the fuselage: bullets fired from above and behind. They had travelled right along to the cockpit. There were holes in the cockpit. Blood spattered the seat. There was a hole in it.
Apart from blood on the seat, the entire statement is untrue. The seat was officially given to Captain Brown as his personal souvenir (he had actually requested the engine) and he was well aware that there was no hole in it that could have been made by a 0.303 bullet, or indeed any bullet, and that it was on display in Toronto. There is ample photographic documentation and testimony from 3 Squadron AFC personnel, including two officers, Lieutenant W J Warneford and Captain К Ross, on the absence of bullet holes in the area specified. Although there is no confirmation that Brown looked at the dismantled Triplane when it arrived at Poulainville, it is highly unlikely that he failed to do so.
Brown would also have known that having attacked towards the left-hand side of the Triplane as he intercepted its line of flight, his fire would not have ‘stitched’ its way up from the tail to cockpit, the way a layman would describe an assumed attack from the more usual astern (six o’clock) position.
It has been postulated by historian Frank McGuire that when Brown discovered that the text to be published was not quite what he had in mind and that Liberty would accept no changes, he caused the display location of the seat to be added so that anyone who cared to look at it would learn that the article had been ‘edited’.
2. The Crash Site, page 55. upper left
IVe (Col. Caimes and (.’apt. Brown) walked towards the place where the red Triplane lay. It was possibly a mile and a half away (from the battery). A road ran pan of the distance. Then nr entered the reserve trenches. And shortly nr saw the machine. It lay on high ground, between the trenches, in what was once a cultivated field. Sticking to the trenches we got as close to it as nr could, but it was still possibly 100 yards away.
The road did NOT stop short of the crash site. The reserve trenches were NOT on the route from the battery to the crash site. The Triplane was NOT in between the trenches on the high ground: it was about 800 yards south-east of them and on the opposite side of the road. No-one at the crash site has ever mentioned seeing Caimes or Brown there.
Captain Brown knew full well where the crash site was located. The copywriter appears to have composed his location from descriptions given in the Summary and in the Red Knight of Germany.
3. Von Richthofen’s Body, page 54. middle left.
Cairns (mis-spelled all through the article) asked the whereabouts of the body, and was told that it had been turned over to the Royal Air Force. We learned later this was done only after a verbal dog fight. The Anssies had not wanted to part with it.
Captain Brown was well aware that 3 AFC’ at Poulainville had jurisdiction and that all the examinations and official procedures including the burial had been conducted under its CO, Major I) V J Blake.
The paragraph on page 54 which follow’s the one transcribed above contradicts it in that according to the copywriter. Brown then proceeds to examine the body that is not there. Brown was well aware when he first saw the body; it was at Poulainville that evening. Fie so stated in a letter to his father.
The entire episode, as presented by the copywriter, is pure invention.
4. Deaths of the Aces, page 42. top right.
I he greatest of them – Boelcke, Ball, Gnynemer, McCndden, died like the poorest dnb when an enemy pilot spewed a straight burst at the right moment.
Only Guynemer was shot down, and there is a question as to whether by plane or by ground fire. The other three were killed in flying accidents which were used in Advanced Flying Schools as examples not to be copied, Boelcke collided in air combat. Ball became disoriented in cloud, and McCndden, suffering engine failure, turned back rather than make a forced landing straight ahead. Brown, who served as an instructor, was certainly aware of the truth and would not have subscribed to such nonsense.
5. Engine Trouble, page 52. top right.
I After shooting down von Richthofen / / turned towards Bertangles…. Only three cylinders were hitting [firing/. The propeller was scarcely turning over. But I made the ‘drome.
No aeroplane pilot would have written that! However, it is an improvement on the Summary which allowed Brown only two cylinders out of the nine.
An aeroplane with a rotary engine in that condition would be likely to catch fire in short time. Unburned petrol would be issuing from the six spinning exhaust ports, collecting inside the cowling and then washing along the bottom of the fuselage just waiting for a spark. The loss of power would be far too great for the Camel to maintain height and the vibration from the unbalanced forces would cause rapid failure of the engine support frame.
A pilot of the calibre and experience of Roy Brown would instinctively have switched OFF his engine and made a precautionary landing. Even over enemy territory, no pilot who valued his skin would have done otherwise. The story is probably a gross exaggeration by the copywriter of some lesser difficulty described by Brown, although nowhere else is there a mention of a problem with his engine.
6. Decorations, page 56, top right.
I was given neither decoration nor award, although two Australian Tommies were credited with receiving Distinguished Conduct Medals for their unsuccessful shooting from the trenches.
The entire statement is untrue. Lieutenant May is on record as being amazed when he read it. It would appear to be a dramatised distortion of Brown’s disappointment that the recommendation that he be awarded the
Distinguished Service Order (DSO) was not approved. That would not be shabby treatment; the DSO is but one step below the Victoria Cross and requires great bravery in action on the occasion for which it is awarded.
Instead, later in the year, at a ceremony conducted by the Prince of Wales, he was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Service Cross. This decoration was more applicable to the circumstances. The complete recommendation is to be found in Appendix E.
No Australian received a medal of any kind whatsoever.
It may come as a surprise to the reader to learn that the well-known story of von Richthofen looking round to see who was firing at him originated in My Fight with Richthofen on page 52, bottom left. To look round is the reaction of a novice and it was in such a way that a surprisingly high number of newly graduated pilots met their death, for, whilst they were looking round (instead of getting out of the line of fire), their attacker – most likely with the sun behind him – was correcting his aim.
If a novice pilot survived long enough to conquer that fatal, although natural, reaction, he had a chance to see the end of the war. The reader may recall that on the silver screen the hero pilot always hears shots, looks round puzzled, (probably curses: swine! if he is British; schweinhund! if German) and is then killed from behind (accompanied by a small trickle of blood from one corner of his mouth). An excellent book: No Parachute, by the late AVM Arthur Gould Lee MC (Jarrolds 1968), contains a good description of how by bitter experience he learned how not to look round if attacked and that it was by the grace of the enemy’s poor marksmanship that he reached that level of expertise.
Von Richthofen was not a novice; it was well – known by the British aces who tangled with him that at the first sign or sound of a shot he took sharp evasive action. He only survived in front-line duty for eighteen months by being quick. Gould Lee commented that he could never hold von Richthofen in a good position long enough to take aim and then fire. With that in mind, My Fight with Richthofen, in sentences too close to the Summary for co-incidence, asks its readers to believe that despite the loud Rak-ak-ak noise of bullets striking his tail, von Richthofen calmly flew straight ahead and allowed Brown to correct his aim. That he then continued to fly straight ahead whilst hearing Brown’s bullets stitching their way up the fuselage to the cockpit and that his only defensive manoeuvre was to look round. The mind boggles at the ineptitude. It is fortunate that many photographs of that part of the fuselage (despite the ravages of looters and souvenir hunters) and tail/elevators still exist to counter the slur on the Baron’s intelligence and proficiency.
The ‘looked round’ story is obviously an addition which the copywriter thought applicable to the circumstances and tacked onto the scenario “lifted’ from the Summary. The authors have been surprised at the number of people who have heard that My Fight with Richthofen is seriously flawed and yet have firmly believed, until advised of the origin of the tale, that von Richthofen did indeed look round when he saw tracer coming his way.
Dirty Work at the Cross-roads (Liberty, 24 December 1927).
Reference was made earlier to Roy Brown’s second contribution to the magazine. Basically it follows the same pattern as the first one; Brown’s story has been heavily edited to heighten suspense and to create thrills. The description of how to dive a Sopwith Camel has no relation with reality. Once again truth has been converted into a load of old rabbit:
Down went the stick. And down went the nose of the Camel, plumb vertical, engine full out. That was one wild dive! In eight seconds we dropped 8,000 feet.
Pilots were taught NEVER to dive a Camel vertically. It tended, against the pilot’s wishes, to go ‘over vertical’ and to progress into an inverted dive from which recovery in one piece was extremely difficult. The lack of knowledge of the copywriter who ‘enhanced’ Brown’s account is indisputably revealed by a simple conversion into Miles Per Hour of the stated descent rate of 1 ,(KK) feet per second.
Every pilot knows that Miles Per Hour, divided by two, gives Yards Per Second fairly closely. 1,(KH) feet is equal to 333.3 yards, therefore, the descent given by the copywriter would be approximately 667 mph. (The calculated answer is actually 682 mph.) This is more than three times the speed at which a Camel’s fuselage would leave the wings behind, and is faster than every jetliner in service in 1997 except for Concorde.
Let the Reader be the Judge
The reader, who by now should be aware of the relative positions of the three aeroplanes, is invited to decide which is true; Lieutenant May’s written assertion that he did not see Brown attack von Richthofen, or the following statement in My Fight with Richthofen on page 52, middle left:
Then he (May) heard my guns. Fie flashed a look. ‘Thank God, its Brownie.’
Rather than supporting Captain Brown as having shot down von Richthofen, the heavy editing of his story has destroyed his credibility by using obvious falsehoods to present his case.