Lilian Bader was one of the first women of Afro-Caribbean heritage to join the Royal Air Force (RAF)
Updated: Jan 29
Lilian Bader was born in 1918 in the Toxteth Park area of Liverpool to the Barbadian-born Marcus Bailey, a merchant sailor who had fought for the British in the First World War, and her British-born mother, Lillian McGowan who was of Irish parentage. The Baileys married in 1913 and had three children.
Liverpool is one of the oldest continuous Black communities in Europe. Black people have been in Liverpool as sailors, soldiers and slaves for over 300 years, long before the Windrush generation and post-war migration from the Caribbean.
Around the age of seven, her parents separated and her father took custody of the children. The family moved to Hull, where her father Marcus had worked before the war and had friends there who could help him look after his children while he worked. In 1927, Bader and her older brothers, Frank and James, were orphaned and brought up in care.
Lilian was separated from her older brothers and for many years had no contact with them. From the age of nine, she lived in the Roman Catholic Girl’s home in Middlesbrough. She lived there until she was 20 because no one would employ her. Bader explained that it was difficult to find employment ‘because of my father’s origins: “My casting out from the convent walls was delayed. I was half West Indian, and nobody, not even the priests, dare risk ridicule by employing me.”
However, Bader was determined to overcome the racial prejudice she faced. Eventually finding work in domestic service. With the outbreak of the second world war in 1939, Lilian wanted to do her bit for the war effort and enlisted in the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) at Catterick Camp, Yorkshire. She was given a role working in the NAAFI canteen, serving food and drink to servicemen but was dismissed after only seven weeks because of the ‘colour bar’. Her father’s West Indian heritage was discovered by an official in London and for weeks, her supervisor avoided informing her of this decision – but eventually, he had to tell her the truth and sack her.
Lilian returned to domestic service. But she felt embarrassed when a group of soldiers expressed surprise that she was not doing war work. She asked: “How could I tell them that a coloured Briton was not acceptable, even in the humble NAAFI?”
Yet Bader was determined to sign up. One day whilst listening to Una Marson’s BBC radio programme Hello! West Indies, she heard a group of Caribbean men talk about how after being rejected by the British army they were accepted and enlisted to help with the war effort by the RAF. Consequently, the resilient, resourceful and patriotic Lilian tried again. She applied for and was enlisted with, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) on 28 March 1941. 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 no end."
Although not widely reported or recognised in the UK, the Caribbean was impacted by 2WW warfare through the Battle of Atlantic campaigns from 1941 to 1945. Most notable is the Battle of the Caribbean in which German U-boats and Italian submarines attempted to disrupt the Allied supply of oil and other materials from the Americas and Caribbean by sinking ships carrying goods and attacking coastal targets in the Caribbean.
With the 2WW on their doorstep, thousands of Caribbeans volunteered to join the war effort. Driven largely by a need to fight fascism. They had witnessed the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (then referred to as Abyssinia) in the 1930s which had imposed racial segregation and banned mixed marriage. While watching in horror the rise of Hitler in Germany. Fearing that if Hitler and his allies won the war, they would try to reintroduce slavery to the Caribbean.
Approximately 10,000 Caribbeans volunteered for service alongside the British during the Second World War. Around 6,000 Caribbeans served with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force, in roles from fighter pilots to bomb aimers, air gunners to ground staff and administration. Of these, well over 100 were women who were posted overseas – 80 chose the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WWAF) for their contribution, while around 30 joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).
Initially, Bader carried out domestic work for WAAF officers, before taking an exam and winning a place on a course for instrument repairers, one of the new trades open to women. Her joy at being enlisted was overshadowed by the tragic death of her older brother, Able Seaman James Bailey, who was killed in action on 14 March 1941 while serving in the Merchant Navy. She nevertheless passed her course ‘First Class’, becoming one of the first women in the air force to qualify in that trade. Bader was one of the first group of women to be allowed on planes to check for leaks in their vital pipes. She was also of the first group of women in the WWAF to be issued with overalls since the uniform skirts weren’t very practical when scrambling inside bomber plane engines!
By the end of 1941, she was a Leading Aircraftwoman (LACW) at RAF Shawbury where she worked long hours checking for faults in the instruments of the aircraft. She soon gained the rank of Acting Corporal.
During the war, she was introduced by an acquaintance to a young UK-born Black mixed-race soldier called Ramsay Bader. He was a tank driver who was serving with the 147th (Essex Yeomanry) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. Lilian and Ramsay exchanged letters and photographs. Lilian immediately felt attracted to Ramsay: ‘Even in the ugly khaki battle dress, he looked like an officer.’ The couple met for the first time at York station and married later in Hull on 11 March 1943. Spending their first night of their honeymoon at the Station Hotel in Hull and as Lilian recorded, “Hitler celebrated with an air raid.”
Lillian was discharged from the WAAF in February 1944 when she discovered she was pregnant with her first child. A few months later, on the 6 June, her husband Ramsay was one of the thousands of soldiers engaged in the D-Day landings. It was an anxious time for Lilian, and she prayed that her husband would survive, which Ramsay did.
I didn’t know if Ramsay was alive or dead… I remember kneeling in the chapel and praying like blazes that Ramsay would be saved. It was a terrible time because you knew some people were going to be killed, and Ramsay couldn’t swim! He hated water. That’s what worried me more than anything, but he came through.
After the war, the couple moved to Northamptonshire to raise their family and went on to have two sons. When they had grown up, Lillian studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree at London University and then became a teacher, a profession 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.
In 1989, she released a memoir entitled ‘Together – Lillian Bader: Wartime Memoirs of a WAAF’ published by the Imperial War Museum. In it, 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."
On 7 August 1990, she appeared on the UK television show ‘Hear-Say’ with a group of ex-service men and women from African and Caribbean countries who had fought on behalf of the UK in the 2WW. They debated the pros and cons of supporting Britain in the two world wars with members of the younger generation. During the programme, Bader became frustrated with the lack of understanding from some of the younger members of the audience. They failed to understand why black people from across the British Empire joined the war effort. So, Bader explained why she had joined the WAAF: "We [black people] would have ended up in the ovens."
Lilian understood that, if Hitler had invaded England, Britain’s Black citizens would have suffered the fate of Black people in Nazi Germany and occupied Europe: they would have been rounded up and interned in concentration camps.
Nine years later, on Remembrance Sunday, 14 November 1999, Bader contributed to another television documentary, The Unknown Soldiers, which received awards from the Commission for Racial Equality and the Royal Television Society. In 2002, she was invited to meet the Queen at the inauguration of the Commonwealth Memorial Gates in Hyde Park which commemorates the armed forces of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Indian subcontinent countries that fought in the First and Second World Wars for Britain.
Lillian Bader died on 14 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. Unafraid to highlight the racial discrimination she and her family suffered whilst proudly serving their country throughout the wars. She said: “I think we've given back more to this country than we've received."
Bader knew the contribution of Black and Asian Britons in the war should be recognised and remembered, a struggle that continues to this day. She dedicated her later years into making as much noise as she could for this.
Following her death, she was recognised in 2018, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. The Voice newspaper listed Lillian Bader – alongside Kathleen Wrasama, Olive Morris, Connie Mark, Diana Abbott, and Margaret Busby – among eight Black women who have contributed to the development of Britain. In October 2020, Bader was commemorated by the publication of an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.