Wing Commander Lucian Ercolani was a wartime bomber pilot decorated three times for gallantry in operations over Europe and in the Far East; he was later chairman of the family furniture company Ercol.
On the night of November 7/8 1941, Ercolani took off in his Wellington of No 214 Squadron to attack Berlin. The target was obscured by cloud, and Ercolani dropped his high-explosive bombs but decided not to release the incendiaries as, if dropped in the wrong place, they might cause confusion for the following aircraft.
Over Munster on the return journey, his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire, and the incendiary containers caught fire. The crew’s attempt to jettison them failed and the fire spread over the whole of the bomber’s floor, filling the aircraft with smoke.
The flames eventually subsided, but were never completely extinguished, leaving the midsection of the aircraft almost burned away with most of the fuselage fabric destroyed.
The aircraft’s wings and engines had also been damaged, and it steadily lost height and speed.
Despite the appalling state of his aircraft and his limited ability to control it, Ercolani decided to try to make it to England. The journey took three hours: he crossed the enemy coast at 1,000ft and eventually had to ditch in the Thames Estuary.
When the aircraft hit the water Ercolani was injured, and he went down with the sinking bomber – but the cockpit section floated to the surface, allowing him to join his crew in the dinghy, which then floated into the North Sea and eventually along the English Channel. The searching ships and aircraft failed to locate it, and the crew’s attempts to paddle ashore were ineffective. Finally, after three days drifting in the bad November weather, Ercolani and his men were washed up on the southernmost tip of the Isle of Wight.
Flying Officer Ercolani was awarded an immediate DSO – a very rare accolade for so junior an officer – for “outstanding courage, initiative and devotion to duty”.
The son of an Italian furniture designer and manufacturer who had come to England in 1910, Lucian Brett Ercolani was born at High Wycombe on August 9 1917 and educated at
Oundle, where he excelled at sport. He left school in 1934 to work at his father’s company, Ercol.
When war broke out he joined the RAF and trained as a pilot in Canada, returning in May 1941 to join No 214 Squadron. In October the next year Ercolani left for India, joining No 99 Squadron near Calcutta.
The squadron was one of two Wellington long-range bomber units used to attack enemy airfields and river, road and rail supply routes. Ercolani led many of these missions over the ensuing months before the squadron switched to night bombing. Inadequate maps, appalling weather and poor aircraft serviceability due to lack of spares added to the hazards of flying during the “Forgotten War”.
With the expansion of the strategic bomber force and the introduction of the long-range Liberator, in September 1943 Ercolani went to the newly-formed No 355 Squadron. He flew many sorties deep into enemy territory, some involving a round trip of 2,000 miles, to destroy the supply networks used to reinforce and support the Burma battlefield. An important and frequent target was the Siam-Burma railway built by Allied PoWs.
In September 1944 Ercolani returned as CO to No 99 Squadron, where he won the respect and affection of his airmen (“erks”, in RAF slang), who affectionately dubbed him “THE Erk”. He led many of the most difficult raids himself, often taking his heavy four-engine bomber as low as 100ft to drop his delay-fused bombs as his gunners strafed buildings or rolling stock.
He attacked supply dumps and Japanese headquarters, and throughout the early months of 1945 regularly led forces of up to 24 Liberators against targets in Siam, southern Burma and on the Kra Isthmus, often in the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire. He was the master bomber for an attack against the railway system at Bangkok and was mentioned in despatches.
By the end of March 1945 the decisive battle for central Burma was won, and a few weeks later the “erks” of No 99 bade a sad farewell to their popular CO. For his outstanding leadership and courage he was awarded a Bar to his DSO.
Ercolani was then put in command of No 159 Squadron, part of the Pathfinder Force, attacking targets in Malaya and flying a number of mining operations to distant ports, including Singapore – sorties of more than 20 hours duration.
On June 15 he led a force of Liberators to attack a 10,000-ton tanker, the Tohu Maru, which had been located in the South China Sea. The mission involved a round trip of 2,500 miles. Flying in appalling weather, some of the Liberators were unable to find the target, while some were damaged by enemy fire. Ercolani attacked at low level and made three separate bombing runs, registering successful hits on the tanker, which caught fire. Subsequent reconnaissance reports confirmed that it had sunk, a devastating blow to the Japanese troops depending on its vital cargo of fuel. Ercolani was awarded an immediate DFC.
He flew his last operation on August 5 when he attacked a target in Siam. Almost immediately, his squadron then turned its attention to dropping food and medical supplies to the many PoW camps spread across Siam and the East Indies.
Ercolani left the RAF in March 1946 and rejoined his father at Ercol. Owing to the scarcity of raw materials, new furniture had been rationed since 1942, and the particular achievement of the Ercolanis was to mass-produce the Windsor chair while conforming to the stringent requirements of cost and material laid down by the Board of Trade. At its peak of production, Ercol made around 3,000 Windsor chairs a week.
For many years Ercolani served as chairman and joint managing director with his brother. He formally retired in the mid-1990s but remained closely involved with the company until his death on February 13.
In 1980 he became Master of the Furniture Makers’ Guild, of which his father had been a founder member.
Ercolani took a great interest in young people and in their education, whether they were Ercol’s apprentices or those training in design. For some years he served as a governor at High Wycombe College.
In 1992 he was awarded an honorary doctorate in design by the Council of National Academic Awards. He was a devoted supporter of the British Legion, and had a passion for classic cars and for sailing – his many forays to sea took him from the Hamble to France and to the Azores.
Lucian Ercolani married, in 1941, Cynthia Douglas. She died in 2004, and he is survived by their daughter; a son predeceased him. (Obituary courtesy of the Daily Telegraph)