Wartime RAF bomber crew survivors are now thin on the ground, and there are precious few reunions, but members of 99 Squadron still endeavour to meet every year. One of the most memorable occasions was in October, 1986, at RAF Mildenhall, and was attended by a former commanding officer, ex-Wing Commander Lucian Ercolani. Know familiarly to his men as "The Erk", he later became chairman and joint managing director of Ercol, the famous furniture manufacturers, of High Wycombe, Bucks. "The Erk" won his first DSO when he flew on bombing raids over Europe.
The squadron had an impressive history dating back to August 1917, when it operated with DH 9 bombers in France. In 1938 the squadron became the first to be equipped with Vickers Wellingtons, and took part in many missions over Europe in the 1939-45 War from airfields at Mildenhall, Newmarket and Waterbeach. It was transferred to India in 1942 with "The Erk" as CO to take part in the war against the Japanese, and in mid~l944 it was re-equipped with four-engined Liberators, often flying arduous missions lasting up to 18 hours on shipping strikes and against land targets.
Recalling those days at the reunion, Lucian Ercolani said: "It was a squadron of exceptional spirit which always did more than one could reasonably expect. We managed to keep our identity. There was no distinction between maintenance personnel and flying crews, and we also kept a balance of New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians and English among the fliers".
"The Erk", who won a second DSO in India and the DFC for sinking an enemy submarine depot ship south of Bangkok, had to organise the conversion of the squadron from the two-engined fabric-covered, geodetic Wellingtons to the all-metal, big payload Liberators, a complicated and laborious job involving retraining crews and ground staff and extending runways. "Statistically, bomber crews whose tour of duty was 30 missions survived only 20. I was one of the lucky ones," he said.
This was borne out on the day when his younger brother Barry, a member of 159 Liberator Squadron, which was also in India, was carrying out gunnery practice. "Somehow a live bullet got among the rounds and was fired. It whistled past within six inches of my face," Ercolani said. That's what happens when brothers are allowed to fly in the same vicinity together!
When I edited the squadron magazine NinetyNine in India, the first edition carried a profile of the CO which traced a bit of his history. Whilst on his first tour, returning from a trip across the North Sea, he was forced to ditch. He spent five days in a dinghy, caring for wounded members of his crew, finally navigating them back to safety. That's how he won his first DSO. His hobbies were rudely reported as drawing unique pictures of the adjutant on his daily blotting paper, shooting (especially kitehawks), and drinking (especially whisky).
Wing Commander Sandy Webster took command when the call came to transfer the squadron to an advanced base on the Cocos Keeling Islands as part of the final assault against Japan. When the war ended the squadron dropped supplies to men held in Japanese prison camps and then helped to airlift them back to Britain.
In 1946 No. 99 ceased to be a bomber squadron and, though it afterwards served with Transport Command, it was finally disbanded. Some years ago a memorial was built at Newmarket (on the Rowley Mile at the racecourse) in memory of all Ninety Niners who did not survive the war.