Triumph and Tragedy: The Story of Lilian Bader

Lilian was one of the first black women to join the British Armed Forces during World War 2. She dealt with discrimination and racism, but she rose up through the ranks and left one hell of a legacy for those who follow in her footsteps.

Our gal Lilian

Born in 1918 Lilian grew up in Liverpool, she was the youngest of three  born to her Dad, Marcus Bailey, who was born in Barbados and acted as a merchant seaman during WWI.

Their mum walked out when Lilian was very young so she lived with her Father in Hull. Tragically her Dad then passed away when she was 9 years old, so Lilian was separated from her brothers and placed in a convent, where she stayed until she was 20.

The Rise of Lilian

Lilian worked as a cleaner until the second world war broke out.

Girl wasn’t going to stick around scrubbing loo’s when she could do way more. So she immediately joined the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes in Yorkshire, working in the canteen, until it was discovered her father was of West Indian Heritage.

See, they didn’t allow recruits with that background, so she was released from her post.

In 100% agreement. Bullshit. Bullshit bullshit bullshit!

Was Lilian put off? FUCK NO!

She bided her time, and soon found out that the RAF was accepting applicants with West Indian Heritage! HUZZAH!

Lil was enlisted to the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in March of 1941. Our gal had made it!

Sadly, life can be a total bastard, and just two weeks into her training Lilian’s older brother James was lost at sea, he’d decided to become a merchant seaman like his father and signed up to help with the war effort. Lilian took some compassionate leave to deal with her loss then got right back to training.

Lilian completed her training and was a fully certified instrument repairer for the RAF, she then rose through the ranks and was made a Leading Aircraftwoman (LACW) in December 1941. She quickly climbed the ladder again and was made Acting Corporal.


An instrument repairer, Lilian took care of all machine equipment and the planes. She was responsible for checking the function of all the planes before take off, so her role was vital in keeping the pilots safe.

From not being allowed to serve food…Lil was now responsible for peoples lives. Talk about an upgrade!

Time for a Wedding!

During all her war work  Lilian somehow found time for romance. She started corresponding with Ramsay Bader, a fellow serviceman who was also of mixed race. Their relationship developed, and they got hitched in 1943!

lilian-ramsay-s-wedding-straightened (1)
Lil & Ramsay. How fucking cute are they?!?!

Things got rough again when Ramsay took part in the D-Day landings on June 6th 1944. She said in an interview she spent time in her local chapel praying for her husband’s safe return.

‘It was a terrible time because you knew people were going to be killed and Ramsay couldn’t swim!’

He survived (a bloody miracle considering boy couldn’t swim!) and came home to her.

They went on to have two sons and Lilian was dismissed from the RAF in 1944 to have the first son.

After leaving the RAF Lilian went back to school to get the qualifications she needed to become a teacher and she carried on teaching well into her 80’s. This woman was utterly amazing.

What an incredible woman!

She passed away in 2015 at the age of 97.

Since Lil broke down those barrier, three, yes THREE, generations of her family have served in the armed forces.

This was interesting, where can I find out more?Lilian actually wrote a book on her time working in the RAF called Together – Lilian Bader: Wartime Memoirs of a WAAF 1939-1944 which was published by the imperial War Museum. There’s extracts of this online.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

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