Black History, Blog

Lilian Bader: one of the first Black British women in the Royal Air Force by Lucia Wallbank

In 1990, a group of African and Caribbean ex-service personnel appeared on an episode of the BBC television show ‘Hear-Say’. One woman explained why Britain’s Black citizens chose to take up arms in the Second World War. If Hitler had invaded, “We would have ended up in the ovens”.

Her name was Lilian Bader.

Born Lilian Bailey in the Liverpool suburb of Toxteth Park in 1918, she was of dual heritage, as her father was Barbadian while her mother was Irish. Sadly, Lilian was orphaned at the age of nine, and her childhood was spent in a convent.  She remained there until she was 20, her job opportunities limited. She said, “nobody would employ me, and that was when I realised, I had a problem with colour”.[1] After only two months, Lilian was later forced to leave a job in a NAAFI (Navy Army Air Force Institute) canteen when her father’s West Indian heritage was discovered. At the time, there was a colour bar in the armed forces.

When the colour bar was lifted, many men travelled thousands of miles across oceans in order to enlist, often paying their own passage to do so. As such, the recruitment of colonial soldiers was crucial to the Allied war effort. From late 1940, the RAF began actively recruiting volunteers from the Caribbean. Lilian heard a group of West Indians on the radio who had been rejected by the Army but had enlisted successfully into the RAF. She was inspired to apply. On 28 March 1941, she was accepted into the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.[2] Lilian was nervous and noticed she was ‘the only coloured person in this sea of white faces’.[3] But by December, she was a Leading Aircraftwoman and an Instrument Repairer at RAF Shawbury. Lilian Bader left the WAAF in 1944, having reached the rank of Acting Corporal.

While Lilian had a positive experience in the RAF, she spoke about some of the discrimination she faced in British society during and after the Second World War.[4] After leaving the WAAF in 1944, she struggled to find work. She took night classes while bringing up her children, went on to earn a degree and became a teacher.

We do not have exact figures for the invisible minority of Black British women who, like Lilian Bader, volunteered to serve in Britain’s armed forces. We do know, however, that 80 West Indian women served in the WAAF, and a further 30 in the Auxiliary Territorial Service.

Lilian’s experience is just one of many told in the RAF Museum’s ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’ exhibition. In it, we commemorate thousands of Africans and West Indians who have served in the Air Force since its very beginning. The exhibition can be viewed online at .

Until recently, BAME experiences have been largely ‘silenced’ in public history, and many museums and heritage organisations are now beginning to address this.  In addressing this, we uncover the voices of women such as Bader, whilst also using the stories of people like her to understand the complex origin stories of some our objects.

Another way of filling the gaps is appealing to the public for family stories and artefacts. Proactive collecting is vital to ensure our collections adequately represent the diversity of British society. As a result of our ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’ exhibition, more fascinating objects and stories have come to light. Our ‘Hidden Heroes’ projects aim to find more diverse stories as well as encourage important discussion and dialogue.

Statistics show that people from BAME backgrounds are less likely to visit museums and other cultural heritage attractions in the UK.[5] We have responded by modifying our approaches to public programming. As we seek to broaden our audiences, museums can be the vanguards of change in how British History is taught.

When a group of Black British teenagers toured our ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’ exhibition, they were surprised to see photographs of Black Spitfire pilots: in this case Flt Sgt Collins Joseph from Trinidad and Fg Off Arthur Weeks from Barbados. One student asked, “Why haven’t I heard this before?” and was captivated by our displays.

With the Black Lives Matter movement at the forefront of public consciousness, it is ever more important that we give prominence to lives often forgotten in our collective memory. Last year, Patti Flynn, won a 26-year campaign for a public memorial to BAME personnel from Britain and its Empire who served in the First and Second World Wars. Her brother, Sgt Arthur Young, served as a Wireless Operator in the RAF’s Bomber Command and was killed when his Avro Lancaster PB204 crashed returning from France in 1944.

Lilian Bader passed away in 2015. She said, when reflecting on her military service:

“Father served in the First World War, his three children served 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 bravery in Burma. Their father also served in the First World War. Our son was a helicopter pilot, he served in Northern Ireland. So, all in all, I think we’ve given back more to this country than we’ve received.”[6]

Lucia Wallbank has been an Assistant Curator. at the Royal Air Force Museum since 2018. She holds a degree in Modern History at the University of St Andrews and a PgCert in Genealogical Studies from the University of Strathclyde. Before joining the Royal Air Force Museum, she worked at museums in Scotland including Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre. She is particularly interested in military records, the cultural history of the Royal Air Force and women’s experiences of war.

[1] Stephen Bourne, “Lilian & Ramsay Bader: Life in the Forces” in The Motherland Calls: Britain’s Black Servicemen and Women, 1939-45, (The History Press, 2012), p31

[2] While Black British women were able to join the armed forces earlier in the war, Black colonial women were barred from enlisting for some time. The first group of West Indian women volunteers arrived in Britain in 1943 to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service.

[3] Ibid, p32

[4] Stephen Bourne’s recent work explores the prejudice and discrimination Britain’s Black citizens experienced during the Blitz, such as being turned away from air raid shelters. See Stephen Bourne, Under Fire: Black Britain in Wartime, 1939-45, (The History Press, 2020). Warrant Officer Thomas William Johnson was a Black British airman inspired to join the RAF at 18 after witnessing the Merseyside Blitz. A rear gunner in Bomber Command, he was awarded the DFM and was killed in a flying accident on 2 January 1945.

[5] Survey results from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport show that in 2018-19, 51.1% of White people had visited a museum or gallery in the past year compared with 33.5% of Black people and 43.7% of Asian people. Attendance overall was 50.2%. See Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, “Visits to museums and galleries”, , Published 1 December 2019.

[6] Stephen Bourne, “Leading Aircraftwoman in the WAAF and one of the first black women to join the British Armed Forces”, . Published 6 April 2015.