Unforgotten Women: Lilian Bader, The First Black Woman To Join The RAF

Welcome to Black History Is Now, a content series celebrating Black culture in the UK. This year, we're platforming the Unforgotten Women throughout Black British history, highlighting their achievements and legacy in Britain.
Lilian Bader (née Bailey) is the perfect example of a determined woman. Throughout her life she overcame discrimination and racism to become one of the first Black women to join the British Royal Air Force.
Born in Liverpool in 1917, Lilian was orphaned at the age of 9 and was separated from her brothers to live in a convent. She remained there until she was 20 because no one would employ her.
Advertisement
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1939, Lilian set her eyes on serving her country. She got a job at a Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) canteen in Yorkshire but was fired after it was discovered that she had a Jamaican father.
Listening to Una Marson's BBC radio programme Hello! West Indies, which announced that the RAF was accepting recruits with a West Indian background, gave Lilian the fire she needed in her belly. She secured a role and enlisted with the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in 1941. At the time, she said she found herself "the only coloured person in this sea of white faces" but "somebody told me I looked smart in my uniform, which cheered me to no end."
Despite the challenges, her hard work and perseverance saw her rise to the role of instrument repairer and by the end of 1941, she was a leading aircraftwoman (LACW) at RAF Shawbury, checking faults with equipment. She soon gained the rank of Acting Corporal.
In 1943, Lilian met Ramsay Bader, a fellow serviceman who was also of mixed race heritage. When she got pregnant with their son in 1944, she was discharged from the WAAF and the couple moved to Northamptonshire to raise their family.
After the war, Lilian studied for a degree at London University and later became a teacher, a profession she held into her 80s. Her younger son flew helicopters in the Royal Navy and later became an airline pilot. By the end of the 20th century, three generations of her family had served in the British Armed Forces.
Advertisement
Lilian's memoir, Together — Lilian Bader: Wartime Memoirs of a WAAF 1939-1944, was published in 1989. She reflected on her family's contribution to Britain: "Father served in the First World War, his three children in the Second World War. I married a coloured man who was in the Second World War, as was his brother who was decorated for his bravery in Burma. Their father also served in the First World War. Our son was a helicopter pilot, he served in Northern Ireland."
While she was very proud of serving her country throughout her life, she highlighted the racial discrimination her family suffered, adding: "I think we've given back more to this country than we've received."
Lilian Bader died on 14th March 2015 but she will always be remembered as a resilient woman who stood in the face of adversity to give back to the country she called home.

More from Global News

R29 Original Series