The Bournemouth teacher and mum who was one of the first Black women in the RAF
Lilian Bader did not set out to be an inspiration for other black women.
She and others came forward to do their bit in the Second World War out of necessity, she once argued.
If Hitler had successfully invaded, Britain’s black citizens “would have ended up in the ovens”, Lilian said.
But intentional or not, Lilian was a pioneer in this country.
This Black History Month we are taking a moment to remember her example.
Lilian and Bournemouth
In the late 1940s, Lilian made a life for herself in Bournemouth.
She studied for a degree at London University to allow herself to become a teacher.
She and her husband, Ramsay, settled down in Dorset.
They had two sons – Adrian and Geoffrey.
Adrian taught carpentry and joinery at Poole Technical College in the 1970s and Geoffrey flew helicopters in the Royal Navy and later became a pilot.
All these achievements are ones of a happy life.
But it was Lilian’s service in the war that put her into the history books.
Lilian and the RAF
Lilian Bailey, as she was then, was born in Liverpool in February 1918 to Marcus Bailey, from Barbados, and Lilian McGowan, of Irish heritage.
Tragically, she was orphaned at the age of nine and grew up in a convent, apart from her brothers.
Determined to get on in life, she tried to join the Navy Army Air Force Institute.
She managed to get a job in the canteen but her father’s Caribbean heritage was discovered and she was kicked out.
At that time, black people were not allowed to join the armed forces.
However, this changed at the start of the Second World War, when the rules were relaxed.
Lilian is said to have heard a group of West Indians on the radio who had been rejected by the Army but had enlisted successfully into the RAF.
She tried again to sign up and on March 28, 1941 she successfully joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force – one of the first black women to do so.
The Royal Air Force actively began recruiting volunteers from the Caribbean.
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.”
Lilian trained as an instrument repairer.
When the end of 1941 came around, she had risen to the title of Leading Aircraftswoman at RAF Shawbury.
Her job involved checking planes for instrument faults.
Soon, she was promoted again, gaining the rank of Acting Corporal.
Overall, she found her experience of the RAF a positive one.
Lilian the role model
There was, of course, unfortunately prejudice on her way, though.
And she was saddened to discover that would exist throughout her life, beyond her military career.
In 1943 she met Ramsay, a British-born solider who was also of mixed heritage.
He had served as a tank driver in the war.
In 1944 she became pregnant and was discharged from service.
She took night classes while bringing up her children.
But despite her education and wartime experience, she found it hard to find work.
The Imperial War Museum published her memoirs in 1989, forever becoming an example to others.
She also wrote letters and challenged racism throughout her life in Dorset.
The discrimination she encountered over the years left her feeling she had put more into society than she got out of it.
She once said: “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.”
Lilian passed away in Bournemouth on March 13, 2015, at the age of 97.
Her story should serve as a reminder that people of her talent and dedication should never again face the barriers she faced.
She is just one of a number of amazing black figures from Dorset’s history, profiled on the Deed website.