On 11 September 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave a wireless speech to the nation addressing the perilous situation Britain was now facing. Belgium, Holland and France had all fallen to German forces in June 1940, and the battle for air superiority between Germany's Air Force - the Luftwaffe - and Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) was being fought in the skies above Britain.

Maria Blewitt, a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) at RAF Duxford, was listening as Churchill spoke of the imminent invasion he expected from Germany, and her letters home illustrate what life was like for people involved in the ‘Battle of Britain’.

'A tiddly bit frightening'

Carl Warner: “We're standing in Hangar 4 right now, but in one of the annex buildings on the front side of the hangar, so not where the aircraft were but where the people were. And one of the really important things to get across about Duxford during this period is it was a community of people as much as it was an airfield. That of course included men and women, because the women of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force or WAAFS as they were known, were incredibly important. Not only did they fulfil many of the jobs given up when men moved into more combat roles, but they also highly trained people that were doing pretty secret and pretty intensive work in the operations rooms. One of the most fascinating and one of the greatest characters we've uncovered as we've done work on the history of Duxford, is a lady called Mariah Blewitt. Now, Mariah was a WAAF, she was sent to Duxford in one of those roles that required a great deal of education, a great deal of skill, a great deal of nous, and she really had it in spades. She would write to her family most days, most weeks, and of all those great letters there was one that really stood out for me, and that letter was written on the 11th of September 1940, just after a very well-known event when Churchill goes on the wireless and delivers a speech which doesn't pull any punches, it talks about the likelihood of invasion, and one of the things I think we tend to forget about the Battle of Britain is, of course, the people fighting it at the time, people like Mariah, they had no idea they were going to win it. It was a pretty dark time and they thought that they might lose it. And in fact, the country would be invaded. So much so that in Maria's letter to her mother on this day, she talks about Winston’s speech. She calls him Winston and in her brilliant turn of phrase, she calls what he said ‘a tiddly bit frightening’. And one of the reasons why I like the letter so much because it's very understated in terms of the fear she's obviously feeling but the great thing that shows both her resilience and the resilience of the people around her and the people, particularly at Duxford but also on the other RAF stations and in Britain more general, is the next line she delivers because she immediately goes on to talking about having a 48-hour leave pass. And she says: ‘I'll be home on the 17th, unless there's an invasion.” So you know, but pretty much you know, that's when to expect me unless we get invaded. It was just the, the delicious understatement of it that just really shone through for me. It represents resilience, it represents sense of humour under trying circumstances, it represents that mix and blend of people that are here at Duxford. And of course, when taken within the context of all those other documents, you begin to build a picture of what a community was like here in 1940. Again, at a time when they really didn't realise whether they were going to survive or not.”

Maria Blewitt in her Women’s Auxiliary Air Force uniform.
Maria Blewitt in her Women’s Auxiliary Air Force uniform.

Around 3,000 pilots helped repel Luftwaffe sorties over Britain during this period of intense fighting, and they were ably supported by ground crews that ‘scrambled’ fighter planes to engage with the enemy and thousands of other staff that operated Britain's defences on the ground.

With more RAF men taking to the skies, the WAAF played an increasingly significant role on the ground, such as working in the Sector Station Operations Rooms as plotters to track the size and direction of incoming German raids.

Maria Blewitt with some of her colleagues.
Maria Blewitt with some of her colleagues.

Maria was working at RAF Duxford on the day Churchill gave his speech about a potential full scale invasion of Britain, and the letter she wrote to her mother shows how real the threat of imminent invasion was, as well as her sense of humour. She wrote: 'I have just been listening to Winston. Brilliant, inspiring but just a tiddly bit frightening.  He seems quite sure invasion will come within the next week or so. If not I shall be home for 48 hrs on 17th.’

When Maria and her colleagues weren’t protecting Britain from Germany, they kept calm and carried on with life as normal. This is reflected in the letters Maria would send to her family about life at Duxford, where she wrote about dances in concrete-floored aircraft hangars and socialising with RAF pilots, as well as her daily duties and fears for Britain.

The letter from Maria Blewitt to her mother after Winston Churchill's speech on 11 September 1940.
The letter from Maria Blewitt to her mother after Winston Churchill's speech on 11 September 1940.

Maria knew many of the pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain. They were not distant heroes or ‘Brylcreem Boys’ to her, but brave young men flying to keep Britain safe and fighting for their lives. She wrote: ‘The rot written about the R.A.F. makes me feel ill… I’ve met a good many [pilots] by now, as a whole not gentlemen, hard swearing, hard drinking, tough, amusing and grand fun. I have the very greatest admiration for them all.’

Visit IWM Duxford to see more of Maria Blewitt’s letters and discover more stories of people caught up in conflict through our collections.

Related Content

Remington 'Noiseless' Typewriter.
Second World War

The Churchill War Rooms' Remington 'noiseless' Typewriter

The Remington ‘noiseless’ Typewriter at Churchill War Rooms helps tell the story of what it was like for a typist to help Britain and its most iconic Prime Minister triumph during the Second World War.

During a tour of the 2nd Army area, HM King George VI visited the headquarters of the Commander of the 21st Army Group, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery. Field Marshal Montgomery is shown explaining his future plans to the King in his map lorry.
© IWM (TR 2393)
Second World War

Monty's Caravans: A Field Marshal's home from home

Field Marshal Bernard ‘Monty’ Montgomery was the most famous British General of the Second World War. A charismatic leader of men and popular figure amongst his soldiers, Montgomery conducted his campaign in North West Europe from three command caravans: one for his office, one for his bedroom and one for his map room.

Spitrefire taking off from Duxford
© IWM
Second World War

The Spitfire lost for almost 50 Years

Spitfire N3200 flew its first and only operation on 26 May 1940, piloted by Geoffrey Stephenson as he led his squadron on a patrol to cover the evacuation of Allied forces from the beaches of Dunkirk.