On 31 August Goering held a conference with his Luftwaffe deputies. They knew that they had not yet established air supremacy but faulty intelligence suggested that the RAF was running out of planes. The Germans believed that Fighter Command had only 420 aircraft left (the true figure was about 750) and that reserves were down to 100 aircraft (in fact they were double the German estimate). Goering decided to shift the attacks from RAF bases to London itself. (Hitler had given permission for the docks to be attacked after the British bombed Berlin.) Goering confidently believed that this change of tactics would force the RAF to commit the remains of its strength in a last battle to defend the capital. In fact the Germans made a fundamental miscalculation and were committing themselves to the most hazardous of all possible operations - daylight mass bombing - against a still intact and well-organized defence.
The Luftwaffe began to implement the new tactics on 7 September, when they launched a massive raid on the London docks that marked the start of the third phase of the campaign. The RAF badly misjudged the situation and thought the attack was still aimed at RAF bases. In the confusion the fighters did not attack the bombers until they were returning from London after inflicting major damage. The Germans lost only slightly more aircraft than the British and when the raid was repeated on 11 September suffered fewer losses than the RAF. Superficially, the German change of tactics seemed to be working, but during this phase the RAF bases were able to recover from previous damage and remain operational in the vital area of south-east England. It was at this point that Hitler had to make the crucial decision about whether an invasion should go ahead.
Hitler's lack of enthusiasm for any invasion that would amount to more than a straightforward occupation of an already defeated Britain had not altered by early September. For the previous month he had been content to wait and see if the Luftwaffe could defeat the RAF, and had made no effort to direct operations in the way he had during the attack on France. He was making it quite clear that he was not personally involved in what he saw as a highly dubious undertaking. Meanwhile the ramshackle invasion forces were slowly gathering in the Channel ports, where they came under attack from RAF Bomber Command, but preparations were far from complete. The German military had decided that the last possible date for an invasion, taking into account weather and tides, was 27 September. They needed ten days' warning to launch the attack and so a final decision was required by 17 September. On 13 September Hitler was still hopeful that an invasion would not be needed and that the Luftwaffe would be able to force Britain to make peace, although how still remained unclear. On 14 September he put off a final decision on an invasion for three days, until the last possible moment. The next day the Luftwaffe launched its biggest, and what it hoped would be its decisive attack against London. It only demonstrated that daylight bombing was too difficult, even with fighter cover, against a competent defence. Waves of bombers, heavily escorted by fighters, were launched in the morning and afternoon against London. The Germans made the mistake of not undertaking diversionary raids, and so the RAF was able to concentrate all its resources (twenty-three squadrons in the morning and thirty in the afternoon) against the attack. The result was a heavy defeat for the Luftwaffe, which lost about sixty aircraft to the RAF's twenty-six.
On 17 September, with a final decision on invasion required that day, Hitler held a meeting with his military planners. The events of 15 September demonstrated all too clearly that the RAF was still a potent force, and Hitler, deciding that his own scepticism about invasion was well justified, postponed the plan indefinitely. He was now free to turn his attention to his ultimate aim: the destruction of the Soviet Union. Three days after the meeting the dispersal of shipping was ordered but desultory activity was maintained in an attempt to confuse the British (without success). The Luftwaffe kept up its attacks, but apart from a few isolated raids on aircraft factories it concentrated more and more on night raids on cities, especially London. By the end of September the British government knew that an invasion was only a remote possibility, that the daylight raids had not defeated the RAF and that it could now probably expect a long winter of continued night-time bombing. Britain had survived.
Both at the time and since, Britain's survival has been attributed solely to the efforts of `The Few': the pilots of Fighter Command. There can be no doubt that their skill and courage, maintained over a long period of intense combat, was essential in ensuring the defeat of the Luftwaffe. But the Germans too had highly skilled and dedicated pilots and modern battles are decided by more than individual heroism. After Dunkirk and the defeat of France, Britain had not only to survive but also to create a myth that would sustain the nation for the long and difficult period after immediate defeat had been avoided. The myth-creation process was strongly at work in the summer of 1940. British success was greatly exaggerated at the time and many of the misleading statistics issued in 1940 have since become accepted facts. For example, on 15 September, the date still celebrated as Battle of Britain day, the British claimed 185 German aircraft destroyed. The true figure was sixty. During the crucial phase, from 16 August until 6 September, the British people were given an unjustifiably optimistic picture of progress. Figures broadcast by the BBC gave British losses as 292 aircraft compared with an actual figure of 343, an underestimate of fifteen per cent. More important, German losses for this period were reported as sixtytwo per cent higher than the real figure (855 instead of 527). The reality of combat was also very different from the stirring picture painted at the time and subsequently. Only half of the Spitfires and Hurricanes scrambled to intercept attacks ever engaged the German bombers and fighters, and only fifteen per cent of pilots were credited with shooting down any Luftwaffe planes at all. Real "aces" were extremely rare: only seventeen pilots in the RAF accounted for more than ten aircraft each. The most successful squadron (No. 303) was not British, but manned by Polish pilots, and the two most successful individual pilots were a Czech and a Pole.
The real reasons for British survival in the summer of 1940 are more deep-seated than the courage of individual pilots, important though that was. The most significant factor was geography. The German army might dominate the continent, but it lacked the capability to launch an invasion. Such an operation was highly risky and required meticulous planning, as the Allies demonstrated before the Normandy landings in 1944. Hitler was right to be extremely cautious about launching an attack across the Channel without the British being on the point of defeat. The German navy was too small to control the sea in the area and therefore everything turned on whether the Luftwaffe could defeat the RAF and establish local air supremacy. If they had done so, an invasion might have been feasible. The Royal Navy would have found it very difficult to operate in the Channel under German air attack and if the German army had landed then the poorly equipped British army was probaby too weak to do more than delay its advance. As the chiefs of staff told the war cabinet in May: "Should the enemy succeed in establishing a force, with its vehicles, firmly ashore, the army in the United Kingdom, which is very short of equipment, has not got the offensive power to drive it out." Resisting the Luftwaffe attack on the RAF was therefore the key to survival. The RAF came perilously near to losing the Battle of Britain through its stubborn adherence to tradition and hidebound procedures even at a time of supreme national emergency. Under a more flexible system `The Few' could have been more numerous. Victory in the air was achieved through two factors which in the end gave Britain a vital advantage. The first was Britain's ability to produce more aircraft than Germany. Here the advantages of unorthodox and makeshift methods in response to a national crisis were apparent. The second was rooted in German failings: although superior in numbers the Luftwaffe was hopelessly ill-equipped for the task of defeating the RAF over Britain, and this weakness was compounded by the erratic direction of the campaign, whereas fortunately for Britain the pre-war policy-makers had taken the right decisions.
The fall of France, followed by the threat of invasion, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz on British cities in the autumn and winter of 1940, for the first time brought the war to bear directly on the civilian population. How much did the war alter the nature of prewar British society and how well did the civilian population stand up to these new strains? Just as important, how did the government view the task of controlling the country?