752nd Tank Battalion in the
Researched and Written by Robert Holt -
Battle at "The Rock"
The 752nd Tank Battalion's C Company won a commendation from the 85th
for “heroic action in combat” on 26-27 September 1944, at a place the
tankers called “The Rock.” To the local inhabitants, this place was
better known as Sasso di San Zenobi (The Rock of Saint Zenobi). Before
the war, a church and a few small buildings were nestled next to this
outcropping, as shown in the 1939 photo shown above. The Germans used
these buildings in their defense of Hill 966.
a geological perspective, The
Rock is a black and greenish Serpentinite outcropping near the crest of
Hill 966. Unlike the rocks of the surrounding area, it is of volcanic
origin. The Rock is believed to be a fragment of the oceanic crust that
was upheaved when the European and African tectonic plates collided
during the Upper Cretaceous age. This collision formed the Apennine
Mountains, which originally had been at the bottom of an ancient ocean
during the Middle Upper Triassic Period.
The Rock sits near the crest of
Hill 966, which is more properly known as Tre Poggioli. Hill 966 is a
smooth-sloped, inhospitable hill mass, some 3,168 feet in height, that
extends northeast from the base of Mt. Canda.
26 September 1944, the 752nd was
called upon to support the 85th Infantry in an attack against Tre
Poggioli, where stubborn defenders of the German 362nd Grenadiers were
well dug-in. The general objective was to bypass the heavily defended
and more strategic Mt. Canda and seize Hill 966. Once accomplished, the
85th was to regroup and take the much more rugged Mt. Canda, which was
to the southwest of Tre Poggioli.
752nd’s attack on Tre Poggioli
was launched from Collinelle at 0800 hours on 26 September. Company C
carried out the main attack in support of the 1st Battalion of the
338th Infantry Regiment as well as the 1st Battalion of the 339th.
Company B participated in an overwatch role. A steady rain fell over
The Germans had quickly
established their center of resistance in Sambuco, a small village of
thick-walled houses nestled in some craggy hills south of the Tre
Poggioli ridge. The tank-infantry force met stiff opposition from small
arms, mortar, and artillery barrages, which were directed by
observation posts established on the Ravignana Heights to the north.
Throughout the day, Companies B and C fired on enemy troops along the
Tre Poggioli ridge between Mt. Canda and Hill 966, inflicting heavy
casualties and destroying one self-propelled gun (SPG). Their advance
was slowed not only from the heavy fire that was directed upon them,
but also by antitank minefields. By nightfall, they had succeeded in
taking the tiny villages of Caburaccia and Sambuco, representing a
total gain of just over 300 yards for the day. The tanks had reduced
the town of Sambuco to rubble in the fighting.
hours the next morning (27
September), one platoon of tanks from A Company joined in the action
and provided overwatch support from Peglio and Collinelle. B Company once
again supported C Company’s renewed attack by providing direct fire
support from the Tre Poggioli ridge, and by directing three fire
missions of the Assault Gun Platoon. Tanks from HQ joined the C Company
tankers in the attack.
The 752nd tanks fired machine guns
and high explosive (HE) shells at close range in an attempt to dislodge
the enemy. The Germans responded with heavy small arms and mortar fire
from the hill itself, and from the higher ground to the west and south.
In addition, they made good use of their 75 and 105mm SPGs.
In typical “lead by example”
style, Major Woodbury took his 76mm M4A3 tank to join in the assault.
During the mid-morning, they advanced slowly toward The Rock, firing at
the German machine gun emplacements as they went. A heavy artillery
barrage suddenly rained down on the tankers. The ground began erupting
all around the tankers, showering dirt and shrapnel everywhere.
Suddenly the Major’s tank was rocked by a blinding flash and a
tremendous explosion. The right side of the turret had been struck by a
105mm shell from a hidden StuG III SPG of the StuG Brigade 907.
Observers in the following tank say the Major’s tank was totally
obscured by smoke and dust for several seconds.
No one was hurt in the blast, although it did cause the Major to lose his chewing tobacco. Although
no major damage was done, the blast knocked out the turret's power
traverse mechanism. However, the turret could still be traversed at
least slowly by using the hand crank. The tankers knew that this was a
serious liability going up against hidden SPGs at close range. But they
continued on, moving across a flat area and knocking out gun
emplacements at point blank range. The heavy artillery barrage
continued, and the 85th Infantry finally requested that the tanks leave
the area, as they were drawing far too much fire.
As the Major’s tank came out of a
draw, they kept a close watch on The Rock and the church, since German
tanks and SPGs had been spotted behind both. They moved parallel to the
ridge, from right to left in the photo at the top of this web page.
Knowing that German armor was using the church for cover, the tankers
had hand-cranked their turret roughly 45 degrees to the right in
anticipation. Suddenly, a 105mm German StuG III SPG emerged from a
small area between The Rock and the church. The Major’s tank was now
crossing directly into its field of fire at close range.
White, the assistant
gunner, yelled “Tank!”, and Major Woodbury calmly said “Let’s go!” to
his crew over the tank’s intercom. With a round of HE (High Explosive)
already in the breech, the gunner Bill Cardone laid the main gun on the
target as best he could, and with his Sherman still moving, he hastily
sent the round on its way. The HE round hit the front of the StuG, but
merely cracked the armor without penetrating it. White quickly loaded a
round of AP (Armor Piercing), while the driver Howard Stine boldly
stopped the tank to allow a better shot. Cardone fired again, and this
round found its mark with devastating results. The round entered the
front of the SPG and went clear through the rear, causing a tremendous
explosion. The StuG III burst into flames.
the photo below, a B Company
tanker poses in front of the destroyed 105mm StuG very soon after it
was knocked out. The entry hole made by the AP shell can be clearly
seen on the front glacis plate. Two other hits can also be seen. One is
on the lower edge of the front glacis plate, and the other is on the
gun mantlet. The commander’s cupola and armor plating lie askew in the
front of the SPG, while a road wheel rests upright several feet to the
vehicle’s right side (left side of the photo).
following after-action photo
more clearly shows the damage that was done to the StuG III. The
devastation to the vehicle’s left side and rear was catastrophic.
Engine compartment components such as the cooling fan and radiator lie
far behind the StuG. This photo shows that this vehicle used
waffle-pattern Zimmerit anti-magnetic coating, and had a Topfblende
cast (rounded) gun mantlet and metallic return rollers characteristic
of the late version of the StuG III Ausf. G.
hours, some of the German
infantry were seen advancing to the north, apparently fearing that they
were about to be cut off. With that, the 85th Infantry stormed up the
hill, coming under heavy machine gun and artillery fire from Mt.
Canda’s northern slopes to their rear. Shortly after noon, the 752nd
and 85th had driven all of the defenders off Hill 966. During the night
of 27-28 September, the Germans withdrew from Mt. Canda under the cover
of darkness and heavy rain. The heavy rain over the next several days
made the roads and hills too impassable for the tanks to pursue.
As always, the 752nd paid a price
for the victory at Hill 966. On 27 September, the tanks of C Company
were engaged in a mission of holding the hill until the Infantry could
move up. Sergeant Ned O'Neill, a tank commander, received radio orders
to move his tank into a position from which he could direct fire into
enemy foxholes and machine gun positions, and overwatch the movement of
the remaining tanks. Sergeant O'Neill worked his tank up to the very
crest of the ridge, and as he teetered on an almost vertical drop, he
spotted a column of German artillery pulling out of the draw below.
Sergeant O'Neill's gunner could not fire upon them, since he could not
depress his main gun enough to take the shot. Major Woodbury called for
his own artillery to fire a maximum distance smoke marker, but since it
fell short of the Major's position the U.S. artillery also could not
fire upon the retreating Germans.
Sergeant O'Neill began backing his
tank off the ridge over extremely rough and muddy terrain, while under
heavy artillery, mortar, machine gun, and sniper fire. As the tank
backed up, Sergeant O'Neill for some unknown reason ordered his driver
to make a hard right turn, which caused the tank to partially throw one
of its tracks. Despite the heavy fire, Sergeant O'Neill immediately
started to dismount from his tank to try to direct his driver to run
the track back on the suspension. But as he lifted himself out of the
turret, Sergeant O’Neill was immediately hit by machinegun fire. He
dropped back into the safety of his own tank, where his loader
administered a shot of morphine. Although a medic made it to the tank,
Sergeant O'Neill's wounds were too severe, and he died a few minutes
later on the turret floor. After the infantry secured Hill 966, Ned
O'Neill's crew removed him from the tank, covered him with a tarp, and
slowly carried him down the hill to a waiting jeep ambulance.
O'Neill was posthumously
awarded the Silver Star for "his gallant action above and beyond the
call of duty." Three other C and A Company men were wounded in action
on 27 September, and Major Woodbury had been wounded the day before at
the onset of the battle.
Of course, the small village near
Sasso di San Zenobi was never the same after the fighting. The church,
as well as a nearby house the GIs called "The Casa", were heavily
damaged. Although they survived the war, they were finally torn down
some years later, and have not been replaced. The damage to the church
can be seen in the after-action photo below. The tanker in the photo is
Cpl. George Blessing, the gunner in Tank # 15 of B Company’s 3rd
Platoon. Cpl. Blessing later became the 752nd’s last combat fatality of
years that followed were far
more peaceful. In 1990, segments of an Italian movie called "La
settimana della Sfinge" were filmed at The Rock. It was a love comedy,
in which a simple-minded waitress falls in love with a philandering
television repairman. Buildings at the nearby dairy farm were converted
into a truck driver’s restaurant for the movie. A false gas station was
built at the very spot where “The Casa” once stood. Many B Company men
will remember The Casa as a bombed out building that they used for
shelter during the weeks that followed the battle.
Today, Sasso di San Zenobi is a
peaceful place, and is currently the site of a large sheep, goat, and
horse farm that is locally famous for its fine cheeses. The hill at the
base of Sasso di San Zenobi is now a great spot for picking mushrooms.
The area is still under guard, but instead of being guarded by heavily
armed soldiers, it is guarded only by Maremma sheep dogs. A close look
at the hillside today will reveal countless pieces of shrapnel as a
subtle reminder of the violence that once interrupted this tranquil
And “The Rock” continues its silent watch as time marches by.
The Legend of Sasso di San Zenobi
centuries, Sasso di San
Zenobi has had a folklore all its own. According to local legend, Saint
Zenobius (also spelled Zanobius) competed against the Devil in a
classic story of the struggle between Good and Evil. The Devil was
losing power and prestige in the area because of Saint Zenobius' loyal
following. Therefore, the Devil challenged Saint Zenobius to a contest
to determine who would retain spiritual control of the area. The
competition consisted of each contender carrying an enormous rock from
the Idice Valley toward the south, along the Tre Poggioli Ridge. Saint
Zenobius climbed the hill without exerting himself, reached his
destination, and set the rock down near the peak of Tre Poggioli. The
rock that Saint Zenobius carried is now known as Sasso di San Zenobi.
Meanwhile, the Devil struggled, and when he realized that he had been
defeated by Saint Zenobius, he threw his rock down in a rage and the
rock shattered. The Devil’s rock is now called Sasso della Mantesca,
which rests approximately 1.5 km northeast of Sasso di San Zenobi.
also said that the name Sasso
di San Zenobi commemorates a meeting that took place between Saint
Zenobius (the bishop of Florence) and Saint Ambrogio (the bishop of
Milan) along the via Flaminia near the famous rock sometime around the
year 400AD. Every year on the first Sunday of July, local residents
hold a religious feast at Sasso di San Zenobi to commemorate this
meeting. The 2003 celebration is shown below.
would like to
extend a very special thanks to Roberto Grilli of San Benedetto del
Querceto and his father Giorgio for the painstaking research they
conducted in honor of all the men who fought in this battle.