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Ghost Tanks


There are many legends, myths, and stories surrounding World War II. Some of these are missing aircraft or ships—but none of them top the relatively unknown one of the ghost tank. 

Before we discuss the myth, we must know a bit of the backstory. World War II began in 1939. At the start of the war, France, the UK, and their respective empires declared war on Germany due to the German declaration of war on Poland. After the fall of France, Germany gained a new ally in Italy. This proved to be a new problem, as Italy had two colonies on the African continent. It had Libya as well as Italian East Africa, made up of current day Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. This was a problem, as the UK, who was the main one fighting at this point, had its colonial possessions bordering Italy’s, which meant there would be a fight for Africa. Italian East Africa was not a real threat, because all supply heading there was cut off due to the UK’s control of the Suez canal. This left the real threat as Libya, and the battles here would come to be known as the North African Campaign. The UK could not allow an Italian victory in North Africa, as that would cut the UK off from its Asian and Oceanian colonies, most notably the British Raj, Australia, and New Zealand.

Commonwealth forces (shorthand for “forces of the British Empire”) held the border up until mid-1940. This changed, however, when the German reinforcements in the form of infantry and Panzer forces under the command of Erwin Rommel arrived. The Commonwealthers were pushed back, but formed a new defensive line around the city of Tobruk. This was then broken on April 10th, 1931, when the Germans surrounded the city and besieged it.  This caused complete chaos among all the Commonwealth forces, and it is from this battle where the legend begins. This story was told to me by my grandfather. He was told the story by my great-grandfather, who said it was told to him by a POW. The POW was captured during a counter-attack to try and relieve the siege at Tobruk. My great-grandfather was there, as he was in a small contingent of men from the Australian Forces that was not in the siege proper. 

The legend goes that, sometime around January of 1942, there was a small German garrison stationed on the defensive line to the rest of the Egyptian desert. All of a sudden they hear the rumbling of tank engines; everyone jumps to their feet. They get to the Pak-AT gun and grab the captured Boys anti-tank rifle they seized in a previous battle. They radio to the mortar team and fire a star-shell that illuminates the enemy. They begin to aim, and see all but one tank moving towards them slowly. It is different, though: it is painted black.  They recognize it as a Matilda and open fire. Both weapons seemingly go right through. They fire again and again, but the shells just go through this mysterious tank. They radio to call in artillery, and it lands all around their enemy, but again, nothing happens. Despite being shot at from all directions, it does not fire a single shot; it just keeps moving forward.

The fight continues, and the Germans radio in for the quick response unit. Two squads of Panzergrenadiers arrive and move in. They attempt to lay satchel charges on the tank, but the charges fall right through. Then, all of a sudden, they hear a huge bang. The tank begins firing all of its guns, comprising the two machine guns and the main gun. It fires at a rapid rate while still moving, firing its main gun multiple times per second, and begins charging the garrison. It is about to run through the defenses—and then, all of a sudden, one last shot goes through it and all the sound stops. The garrison fires another star-shell to find that it has disappeared. They gave it the name the “Black Ghost.” 

This story is rather unknown, partially because of the sheer amount of history made in the North African Campaign. It was a rare story to begin with, and is never told today. This is likely just a flash of imagination some soldiers, perhaps German or perhaps Commonwealth, made up, but it is still fascinating. Despite the amount of farfetchedness, as this is a ghost story, I am going to say what it might have been if it is somewhat true. The tank could have been an experimental version of the Black Prince tank. This tank was a Matilda that was unmanned and instead piloted by a radio. Some things are still classified from this campaign, so it’s possible that this was the tank in question. It may have been equipped with an auto-cannon, which could explain the fast fire rate. Even granting all of these things, it is unlikely it could have disappeared or gotten out of sight before the next star-shell fired. No one knows where exactly this was or if it even happened.

Of course, there may be no explanation, and this really was a ghost. [Ed. Note—A Ghosting Matilda, you might say?]

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