The Empire Strikes Back – Britain’s Operation Compass – WW2 – 068 – December 14, 1940

The Empire Strikes Back – Britain’s Operation Compass – WW2 – 068 – December 14, 1940


December 14, 1940 British land forces have seen scattered action
so far this war, in places like France, Norway, and Somaliland, and these were for the most
part defensive. In fact, Britain has not mounted a major land
offensive so far… until this week. This week, Britain attacks! I’m Indy Neidell; this is World War Two. Last week the Greek counter offensive against
the Italians continued gaining ground, moving up the Albanian coast. Adolf Hitler met with his Command to make
more concrete plans for an invasion of the USSR, and his next attempt to get Spain to
join the war stalls. That was part of a plan called Operation Felix
to take Gibraltar, and that operation is shelved for good now on the 10th after Abwehr chief
Wilhelm Canaris cables Hitler about it. The Abwehr is the German military intelligence
service. Today, though, I’m going to talk about another
intelligence service for a minute- British Signals Intelligence. We were sent a declassified RAF report by
Paul Dabrowa- thank you, Paul- analyzing just how much contribution British signals intel
contributed to winning the Battle of Britain as compared to, say, radar. The majority of the conclusions- though by
no means all- are that while radar contributed very much on a tactical level, on a strategic
level signals intelligence played a big part though neither was THE deciding factor. But that discussion is still in the future;
what I’m going to talk about now is some interesting stuff I found about R.V. Jones,
the Head of British Scientific Intelligence at just 29 years old. He has been concerned with Germany’s scientific
capability as it has grown and evolved and how Britain could counter new German weapons
as they emerged. It was he who figured out how to read the
German navigational beam systems that directs Luftwaffe bombers. There have been two main German radio bean
navigational systems used during the Battle of Britain- Knickbein and X-Gerät. Knickbein was discovered in March 1940 from
notes found in a downed bomber. This system was a main beam, which the plane
followed to the target via a Lorentz receiver, and an intersecting beam to designate bomb
release point. At about the same time, a German POW told
about X-Gerät, which is more sophisticated. This system has four intersecting beams that
guide the plane, determine its speed of approach, and automatically release the bombs. Well, Jones had the basic information and
he set out to reverse engineer how it all worked. In June 1940, intelligence managed to locate
the Knickbein transmitter at Kleve, and from there he could prove his theories. He did get plenty of further information from
downed planes, POWs, and the like, and signals intelligence was soon able to provide some
advance warning of Knickbein and X-Gerät targets so Fighter Command could take effective
counter measures. Jones claimed his system usually provided
2-3 hours of advance warning of Luftwaffe targets. Fighter interception was ineffective at night,
however, so Jones worked on either jamming or distorting the radio beams to confuse German
pilots and ruin their accuracy. This is from that report: “Substantial progress was not made in the
development of integrated fighter intercept and electronic counter measure techniques
until late October”- so not until around the end of the daytime bombing missions- “however,
sufficient progress had been made during the course of the battle to create a general mistrust
among the Luftwaffe aircrews as to the reliability of these systems.” And that is important- the Germans did not
fully trust their navigational systems. That was what R.V. Jones brought to the table. I just thought that was quite interesting
and deserved mention. Also interesting that- as if we needed more
corroboration- he notes the Coventry attack was not mentioned in enigma messages, and
“to any argument as to whether or not Coventry might have been forewarned, I knew nothing
of it…” One other thing British intelligence has done-
several weeks ago, as we saw- is crack the Italian army’s ciphers in Africa. Now, Italian forces have occupied a strip
of Egypt since mid September, the desert coastline from Sollum to Sidi Barrani. By now in Cairo, British cryptographers have
broken all the Italian codes used for formations all the way down to brigade level for both
tactics and intelligence. They know exactly where the Italian forces
are, where they are stronger, and where they are weaker, and the British offensive in Africa-
Operation Compass- begins December 9th. General Richard O’Connor, the field commander,
leads the 7th Armored and 4th Indian divisions, supported by the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in
the attack. Archibald Wavell is in overall command. The British have fairly limited objectives
at first because they have fairly limited reserves. Rodolfo Graziani is in overall Italian command
with seven divisions of the 10th army deployed in forward positions. O’Connor’s two divisions advance from
Mersa Matruh, over 100km away, beginning the 6th and they achieve total surprise. The British units move forward with 225 tanks
and 150 big guns, backed by the Royal Navy off the coast, and the RAF hitting the Italian
airfields. The British attack is essentially a left hook
around the coastal positions. The Italians, with tankettes and M11/39 medium
tanks, do not really have an answer to the Mathilda tank, and two Italian camps fall
to the Mathildas this day, those tanks being impervious to an assortment of Italian artillery. Troops of the 4th Indian Division take Sidi
Barrani by day’s end the 10th. 20,000 prisoners are taken this day. Part of the 7th Armored, attacking NW, cuts
the coast road between Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq- the Italian retreat road, while the main
force engages the Catanzaro Division near Buq Buq. Four Italian divisions surrendered the 11th. Buq Buq falls, and the Catanzaro Division
is destroyed. The Cirene Division manages to escape, though,
by falling back to Halfaya Pass to join other Italian forces there. On the 11th, Admiral Cunningham’s Mediterranean
fleet bombards Sollum. 14,000 more prisoners are taken this day. In three days, 38,000 Italians are captured
for the loss of 624 British and Indians killed or wounded. 73 Italian tanks have also been captured,
and the Italian have been pushed almost entirely out of Egypt, except Sidi Omar and the approaches
to Sollum. On the 13th, a small British force enters
Libya and cuts the road leading west to Bardia, an important Italian position. By this time, though, the 4th armored and
7th armored brigades, trying to pursue the retreating Italians, are having not only supply
problems, but also logistic problems since the British have taken 20 times the number
of prisoners they prepared for. Still, the week comes to an end even as the
advance continues. The 4th Indian division, though, minus one
brigade, is called to East Africa and will be replaced by the 6th Australian Division. But though the Italians are on the run in
North Africa, their retreat from Greece and the Greek army is really slowing down this
week. Sure, the Greeks in the TSDM- Western Macedonia-
sector capture Ostravice Mountain the 12th, but that’s basically it for the actual advances
and captures this week. However, from the 10th, Germany will transfer
the 10th Fliegerkorps to southern Italy and Sicily to assist in the region, and on the
13th, Adolf Hitler issues Fuhrer Directive #20, the plans for Operation Marita. This will increase forces in southern Romania
over the next few months and then strike at Greece through Bulgaria. 24 divisions are planned for the operation,
which also has provisions to possibly take the Greek islands as well. But Hitler also issues Directive #19 the 10th,
the day the Gibraltar plan is shelved, which calls for Operation Attila, the eventual occupation
of Vichy France to control French airfields near the Mediterranean and the naval base
at Toulon. Martin Gilbert has this to say of these two
directives, “The war, which six months earlier seemed confined to Northern Europe, had now
spread, entirely as a result of Italy’s unsuccessful initiatives, to the Mediterranean.” I should point out that the text of #19 specifically
says to NOT tell the Italians, and that of #20 says any notification of the Italians
and how far Marita will be supported by them is reserved for future decisions. Hitler is not the only one giving directives
and orders this week, though. On December 9th, Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of
the Chinese Nationalist Army, gives some interesting orders of his own: by December 31st he wants
the Communist New Fourth Army to be entirely north of the Yangtze River, and by January
31st, the New Fourth Army and the Communist 8th Route Army to be north of the Yellow River. Communist forces have been south of the Yellow
River and to a certain extent south of the Yangtze for like half a year by now, and there
have been skirmishes- as we’ve seen- between them and the Chiang’s Nationalists, even
though they’re both at war with the invading Japanese. Well, Chiang is pretty clear in a message
to General Gu Zhutong that if they don’t move by the deadline, “then you must take
care of this matter, no more tolerance.” Speaking of skirmishes, I mentioned in October
that they had begun along the Thai border with French Indochina between Thai and Vichy
forces. Thai PM Plaek Pibulsonggram thought he could
regain territory in Laos and Cambodia lost to France decades ago. Well, those skirmishes have continued and
it looks like things might get even more serious. This week on the 9th, French Admiral Jean
Decoux forms the small naval squadron called Groupe Occasionnel near Saigon in French Indochina
just in case of any offensive actions the Thai Navy might take. This force is under Capitaine de Vaisseau
Régis Bérenger and is made up of a light cruiser and four avisos- an aviso is a French
medium warship used in colonial service. These ships are supported by several small
coastal survey craft and seaplanes for reconnaissance. I do have one more political note this week. On the 13th in Vichy France, its leader Philippe
Petain asks his cabinet to sign a collective letter of resignation. Pierre Laval, who has several roles in the
Petain government including foreign minister and Vice President, thinks this is a scheme
to get rid of the Minister of Labor (René Belin, should he be mentioned?). He is thus quite surprised to find HIS resignation
accepted, and himself arrested that evening. He is soon freed from prison when the German
ambassador intervenes, but he is out of the government. He has been more and more at odds with Petain
lately, especially after making decisions- like turning over the Belgian gold reserves
to the Germans- without consulting his colleagues. He openly sympathizes with Nazi Germany, and
as we saw was a main architect of ending French democracy. And that note will end the week, a week of
small Greek gains, but enormous British ones, and orders from Germany and China. Britain has scored a big victory this week,
and one the British public could sure use. It’s been six months since we last saw advances
like this- the Germans in Western Europe. What does this mean? It means that all Italian positions in Africa
are suddenly in danger. And judging from the German response to Greece
it means Germany may well send troops to Africa too, and what those two happenings would mean
is that there will be a lot more fighting, and what that means is that thousands and
thousands more people, this time in southeastern Europe and Africa, will die violent and bloody
deaths. Now this isn’t the first time field marshal
Graziani has had military problems in Lybia, so if you want to see how he and Italy fought
over control for Lybia in 1931, you can check out our B2W episode on that right here [Point]. Coming any moment now. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Becky
Romero. It’s because of Patreons like Becky that
our show is well-supplied in a way that the armies of North Africa in 1940 weren’t,
so make sure to join the war effort on patreon.com or timeghost.tv. We need you! Make sure to subscribe, click the bell and
see you next time.

100 Comments on "The Empire Strikes Back – Britain’s Operation Compass – WW2 – 068 – December 14, 1940"


  1. As most of you know, we have a secondary YouTube Channel where we currently cover the Interwar Years in our 'Between Two Wars Series' -> www.youtube.com/c/timeghost Well. This week, the last episode of 2019 aired there. We will be doing something very special over the Holidays on this channel though. For 9 days, from December 24th till January 1st 2020, we'll cover something that happened on that day in history. Check out the first teaser here: https://youtu.be/VBzQqFPB_TE Spread the word and subscribe to TimeGhost History

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  2. May you pls do an special on Italy? And wether they were as useless as we think, or if that is just the internet being the internet.

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  3. Funny enough, the title 'Empire Strikes Back' was also used on the cover of Newsweek before the start of the Falklands war.

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  4. 2:38 the German pow, I believe that you are referring to the MI19 Trent park bugging operation. Whereby captured German generals where put into a nice mansion with beer music etc. They would talk about things like the war, Holocaust activity, and developments like the V2, all overheard. PBS has a episode about it: "secrets of the dead: bugging Hitler's soldiers. "
    It is mentioned in the episode.
    The Trent park operation was kept quiet as the British where planning on using it again with the soviets
    https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1177259/WW2-news-spies-nazis-secrets-the-ritz-eric-mark

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  5. Unlike "Tommy J. Smith", Churchill certainly DID have fore warning of the attack on Coventry.
    You're getting very 'sloppy' Mr Neidell.. 😉

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  6. Another year before America declares War. Id argue most Americans dont understand fully the scope of the war until we get involved in it.

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  7. Surrounding and defeating a large army with a smaller force. The Italians weren't ready for this type of warfare with their tankets being built for mountainous warfare.

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  8. This week in the Greco-Italian War:

    The town of Gjirokastër fell to the Greek IV Infantry Division on December 8, 1940, at 1100 hours, thereby cutting off the Italian 11. Army (composed of eight infantry divisions, plus one alpini and one armoured) altogether from the town which had been its base and was strongly fortified. Troops from the 'Papathanassiou's Detachment' (an ad hoc formation out of IV Infantry Division with one infantry battalion and three artillery batteries, named after its CO Col. Ioannis Papathanassiou) were the first who entered the town, unopposed. The Italian military and civil authorities had vacated Gjirokastër the previous night.

    The thunderous shouts of 'To Rome!' were heard as the Greeks paraded through the town.

    King George II of Greece, and the Greek C-in-C Field Marshal Alexandros Papagos, sent congratulatory messages to the IV division's CO Μaj. Gen. Leonidas Sterghiopoulos on the capture of Gjirokastër.

    On the same day, the Greeks took the last Italian stronghold in the Pogradec sector: Hill 1532 was taken by the Greek 31st Infantry Rgt at a cost of 459 casualties.

    This success affirmed that the whole Pogradec sector was now under full Greek control.

    Οn December 13, 1940, Hitler issued Directive No. 20, ordering OKW for the preparation of the plan for sending German forces to invade Yugoslavia and Greece in order to revive the bogged-down Italian offensive in Albania.

    Οn the same day, the Greeks breached the Italian line from N of Përmet to Mali i Ostrovicës, a mountain located in the SE part of Albania, at several points by means of a number of sharp local offensives and drove the Italians back to a convex line, covering Këlcyrë (Klisura), a small yet strongly fortified -by the Italians, town.

    The Greeks were by mid-December, 8 km (5 mi) from Himarë, a town on the Ionian coast. The town was shelled intensily and the first reports that the fighting in this area was steadily increasing in intensity, reached the Greek HQ.

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  9. Another idea for a Star Wars title

    Spoilers ahead

    When Romania switches sides, title it "Romania becomes a Rogue One."

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  10. X gerät 😂the X machine…creativity in nicknames
    Mfw Greece was the only country fighting the Axis in Europe and Britain in Africa

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  11. Surely now Metaxas has a dilemma since he is a fascist leader; if the Luftwaffe will attack Greece will he allow British planes to defend Greece? Will the Metaxas government declare war on Nazi Germany?

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  12. Operation Marita against Greece Stall OP Barbarossa against Soviet s i think is one of the biggest reasons for the upcoming failure of Germans against Soviets

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  13. Can we get coverage on how each country has dealt with POWs so far? It seems insane that 20,000 Italians just became a British problem, how do they did they deal with it?

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  14. glad you brought RV Jones up, I guess you should also mention the Oslo report (if you haven't already) RV Jones rightly considered it very trustworthy and it contained valuable info on many subjects: magnetic mines, guiding beams and rockets.

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  15. I know Italy wasnt performing that well but holy shit. Austria Hungary was shit in WW 1 but Italy is in a whole new league of being incompetent

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  16. Hehe, I distinctly remember a viewer requesting to use that title for the next video, and you complied, does it get better?

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  17. "Oh…I'm afraid the deflector radars will be quite operational by the time your Luftwaffen arrives…" – The Empire , Circa 1940

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  18. My Grandfather was in Operation Compass as a tank trooper (he gunned one of the matildas) he was in the African campaign from 1940-1945 and every tank battle youll know about he was in. Hes a hero of mine and he died around 10 years ago aged 92. So thank you for covering it.

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  19. I read a story years ago that the Germans bombed some Allied supply ships in an Italian harbor. One contained poison gas and the escaping gas killed the whole town. Anyone have proof that this happened?

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  20. About Coventry, RV Jones said in a long interview to the bbc in the mid '70s that the german transmitters had changed frequency the day before and they did not have time to set the jamming transmitters to the proper frequency

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  21. How… S*****e! I have no words. Half the X Army, gone, the rest back in Libya. And what was Graziani thinking? His camps didn't even provide mutual support for each other! What is he doing, playing soldier?

    Anyway, the British are low on men, what with the Indians being removed and the Australians on the way. Will they advance more? Indy seems to indicate so. The X Fliegerkorps is now arriving in force in Sicily; for the moment that is the most immediate help that can be sent. Also, if the Matilda tanks are THAT much of a trouble, maybe send part of the Fliegerkorps to Cyrenaica? There is no tank advance that can't be obliterated by some good Stuka attacks. The worst news is, with the 'offensive' in Egypt ended, the AOI is now in serious trouble… its commander, the Duke D'Aosta, has estimated that, in case of war, he'd have supplies for 6-7 months at most. This means they'll run out by the end of next month!

    More to the point, WHERE did the British find the tanks? Their production has been busy with planes to defend their island and making ships for the Atlantic, so they can't have made many, if any, tanks… did they.. took the tank reserves that were in Britain proper? If so, it means London has its eyes on Italy. Which in turn signifies that the planned special 'Afrika' division for Libya won't be enough; more troops will have to be sent, and that separately from those allocated for Operation 'Marita', which will see the might of the Reich move decisively to the Mediterranean. That should remember the enemy that they LOST this damn war!

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  22. This is the craziest battle I've ever had the pleasure of knowing about. I recommend watching TIK's full documentary on the battle:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ji7MZYB4dho (This is the FULL documentary, you can also watch it in clips)

    Man, this is getting super exciting. Can't wait for 1941 as well.

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  23. Excellent series.
    Hoping to hear more about Axis anti-signal surveillence.
    I have read all of Michael Smith's Allied work… surely there is a good Axis counterpoint.

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  24. I personally think that Italy was bigger detriment to Germany than pretty much everything else in ww2. Just look at the scale of Italys incompetence. What a shitty ally to have in a war.

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  25. Morning crew- Great job as always. Cant wait until you do something on B-17s. My grandfather's airfield is still in tact. We just found out! Happy to share pics we received.

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  26. Great video didn’t one of the Kennedy’s die in something to do with this ? At the beginning of the video the part with radar

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  27. I mean, what was Mussolini thinking what would happen by diverting his forces from North Africa to Greece? That the British would simply idly sit and wait for Godot?

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  28. "Putting a kink" into Knickbein allows fallow parts of Britain to be "plowed from the air."
    "Matilda" turns Italian armored vehicles into scrap iron and chases them like an angry ex-girlfriend, while Italian soldiers get "foreign vacations."
    Hitler prepares to "assist in secret," the Italians retreating from Greek forces.
    Petain demands (and accepts) "courtesy resignations" from his unruly cabinet.

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  29. And so set in motion the eventual German involvement in North Africa with an eventual loss rivaling that of Stalingrad.

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  30. That's a really fascinating aspect of the B.o.B. that I've never heard of,(the mistrust by the pilots of their guidance) it's always a duel of numbers and targeting choices that are referred to. Thanks as always.

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  31. British Signals Intelligence was vital , even uncoded messages were at least gave clues via radio direction finding and triangalate source of broadcast , like say a U-Boat in Atlantic Ocean , giving a wireless report to her HQ in France. And U-Boat captains were quite garralous on talking with wiress and giving/receiving radio messages , never occuring them that British could track dşrectiona radio broadcasts and locate them

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  32. It's sad and tragic watching Italy be pathetic every week. They haven't been able to win a war since the Roman empire 2,000 years ago. Poor choice of ally, Germany.

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  33. For more on the German beam system see the BBC series Secret War with William Woolard https://youtu.be/GJCF-Ufapu8 about 30 mins into this file. Includes RV Jones and talk of the beam system using only one beam.

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  34. RV Jones, top genius of the war, and a typically humble scientific man. I wonder what he would have thought of the money chasing MMGW types now in evidence.
    Well worthy of a few special episodes.

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  35. So, as a conclution we can say that Italy and Mussolini were on the allied side already at this point, causing Germany and Hitler only misery and trouble. Not intentionally though, but kind of in the all-Italian way.

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  36. The deep dive into the German radar targeting system and the British signals intelligence efforts to combat it are the type of technical deep dives that I love. Learned something new today. Would love to see more of that

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  37. 6:42 just a note, what you're saying is "Cantanzaro" and not Catanzaro, the n sount between a and t shouldn't be there (the rest of the word is 100% correct)

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  38. Operation Compass probably was Italian worst defeat in WWII, it's also called Caporetto of the desert!

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  39. At 11:28, the subtitles say 'Belin, should he be mentioned?'. I'm assuming that comment is a left over from the draft script of this episode and does not belong in the actual subtitles.

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  40. I wonder if the British tankers during Operation Compass were driving their Matilda tanks calmly through the desert while drinking tea in a flematic British fashion, like in Girls und Panzer… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYBDtUhHh_0

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  41. The 1977 TV series 'The Secret War' had a whole first episode called the Battle of the Beams. R.V. Jones told his side of the story. A very good series, but some later episodes may cover time periods that has yet to happen in this week by week retelling of WW2. So you have been warned !

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  42. First Italians: oh crap, we're losing ground in Africa!
    Second Italian: because Luigi keeps telling Indy what we're doing.
    First Italian: do you think Hitler will send someone to help us?
    Second Italian: probably, that greedy jerk! I just hope it isn't Rommel. I still have nightmares about him from the last time I did what Luigi said.
    Second Italian: I guess we'll just have to suffer through another Indy cliffhanger. What will Hitler do!?!? 😬😬

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  43. It's so funny. I use this channel as a calendar. I remember events and ocassions of my life base on which episode of the series was going on. I'm sure I will remember the first episode and what I was doing in 2 or 3 years, when I finish my history degree. And I will say "I remember I was studying the 1930's when I started watching".

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  44. Philippe Pétain dismisses and arrests a French Nazi supporter… and is still being called a Nazi sympathizer himself.

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  45. Reading about the invasion on Crete right now. Definitely looking forward to that episode. Thanks kindly for sharing

    Reply

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