A Knight’s Cross Grouping: The Pleasant Trek Across Western European Battlefields and the Prize That Awaited at the End - Kelly Hicks
During March 2012 I received an email from a friend in Spain alerting me to the existence of a grouping of military items and documents, recently obtained by a local German (name omitted for privacy reasons) “picker” from the family of a recently deceased German veteran, Siegfried Brosow. After an exchange of information about pricing, trades and other logistics, I decided I could view and possibly obtain the grouping while on an upcoming business trip in Europe. I planned a brief vacation in advance of my business trip, taking my son along for his senior year “spring break.” Our plan was to stay with a friend in the Netherlands, Rob H, who is both a kick-boxer and advanced militaria collector. This way my son, a budding kick-boxer himself, could have something meaningful to engage in while I could enjoy my favorite hobby, in one fell swoop. Adding to this scenario, both my son and I had an intense interest in visiting nearby battlefields such as Bastogne and Malmedy. So in a way, this was shaping up to be a real “bucket list” trip, with the possible fringe benefit of some war relics to return home with.
We landed in Paris on Easter Sunday (the nearest destination available with air miles) and had a look around Saint Germain for a day and a half. Of course we met with a couple of collectors there, and had a helmet show-and-tell, followed by dinner. Part of the benefit of starting in Paris was we took the train over to Maastricht via Brussels, giving us a view of the whole layout of what was once the western theater of battle in WWII. Maastricht is a few kilometers west of the Albert Canal and Fort Eben-Emael, the famous objective of the German Paratroop assault in 1940; a strategic coup in the opening campaign to go around the Maginot Line. We saw much of this terrain from the train, which created a good introduction to the area and gave us an idea of the relatively small size of this historic and important set of battlegrounds.
After arriving in Southern Holland, the days leading up to the trip to see the “grouping” in Germany were filled with visits to the nearby battlefields on the German border, as well as Bastogne, LaGleize, and Malmedy. I recall on the first evening we drove around the area, Rob showed us the “dragon’s teeth”—the tank traps and bunker systems that make up the German “West Wall” or “Siegfried Line” – on both sides of the road, stretching as far as the eye could see in each direction. This was a kilometer west of his house. Down the highway in subsequent trips, we passed through Germany, then back into Belgium and on to Bastogne. Bryan stood in the original “Easy Company” foxholes in the Bois-Jacque, overlooking the town of Foy, where Dick Winters’ former company conducted a daylight assault to take the town (portrayed in the famous episode “The Breaking Point” in the Band of Brothers series). Rob knew where the “tourist foxholes” were, and he knew how the woodline had changed over the years, revealing to us the “original” foxholes, which were farther in and offset a bit from the former. This is where the chills first went up my spine.
Later that afternoon, we went over to La Gleize, to see Tiger 213, the massive SS King Tiger tank that stalled out in the little town square in December 1944. It sits there today, cared for with fresh coats of paint and looking as if it could roll on and create a lot of havoc. In the nearby museum, there are what I believe were facsimiles of SS Lt. Col. Peiper’s original battle maps, showing the broad axes of advance in his own hand, and his depiction of where he believed the enemy positions were. Tiger 213 was part of that main axis of advance.
The absolute best part of the battlefield tours for me was Malmedy. The solemnity of the little field where the American POWs were gunned down in cold blood was profound. Equally profound was the excellent museum located beside the field, called Baugnez ’44, operated by Mathieu Steffens, a collector, historian and curator extraordinaire. The museum was dedicated by the last living survivor (there were only three) of the infamous Malmedy Massacre. I was surprised at the complexity of circumstances that led up to the massacre; the amount of German vehicles that had become bogged down in a massive, several-kilometer long traffic jam, trying to attack northwestward along the small Ardennes roads, searching for intact bridges over which to continue their march toward the final objective of Antwerp. A diorama in the museum graphically and neatly portrays how that backdrop helped create the set of circumstances that led to the murder of those American soldiers. They were truly in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The best part of the museum, aside from the volumes of original US and German military displays, was the restaurant, which featured a local beer called “Blonde.” It is a must-have for any battlefield / museum visit.
The next day, we made the trip into the Saarland, taking the autobahn through the rolling hills of the area that so closely resembles Berks and Bucks Counties in Pennsylvania (where thousands of Saarland inhabitants immigrated during the 1760s—it fits if you see the similarity of the places).
We arrived at a modest, tidy house in a small town, to meet the picker and examine the grouping. This was the nexus of a lot of anticipation and angst on my part, since I knew from the pictures that the items were real, but had not finished the negotiations and also wanted to establish the provenance of the items (the connection directly to the German veteran’s family). Within a few short minutes, I had accomplished all three. The items were marvelous! The proof of the picker’s personal relationship with the deceased veteran and his grandson was impeccable! The story was the picker, who is somewhat of a collector of military documents had met Herr Brosow at an event called a “treffe,” which is a gathering of German veterans. Many history buffs visit these treffes, hoping to meet famous wartime personalities (this veteran Brosow was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, the Medal of Honor equivalent, so he was a “personality” in his own right) and obtain autographs and perhaps hear some stories. The picker had met Brosow in this manner and the two became friends and corresponded. Brosow promised his documents to the picker at such time as he no longer needed them, which was upon his passing in 2008. Brosow’s dutiful grandson brought the documents, the medals, Brosow’s SS Officer (second lieutenant) jacket from the “Junkerschule Braunschweig,” his officer’s belt and a superb example of an SS officer’s M-43 cap. (Brosow had been a combat engineer officer, seeing many tough battles on the eastern front, as well as Normandy, etc. He was a POW of the Soviets after the war, and upon release, led a quiet life as a teacher. It was a tremendous coup to obtain the items he treasured and kept in fine condition all these years after the war).
We negotiated a fair price for everything and I would say the course of events also led to a permanent rapport with this fellow, who is pleasant, intelligent, has an obvious eye for original militaria and a means to obtain it.
As evidenced in the accompanying pictures, I did my best to document the group of items in situ in his house; in the original box he received them from the grandson. I also documented putting them in the box, carrying the box away, and even photographed various scenes along the way back to Holland. Being early April, it snowed on us in the highest parts of the mountains. This was indeed a banner day.
Left: 506th PIR monument at Bastogne.
Right: Easy Co. Foxhole in the Bois-Jacques.
Left: The King Tiger 213 at LaGleize, Belgium.
Right: Cell phone picture of the Brosow Knight’s Cross Grouping, at the finder’s house.
Left: The house in the Saarland.
Right: Visiting to purchase the grouping.
Left: Everything is in the box!
Right: April snow along the route!
Relaxing in Holland with our gracious host Rob H, and friends Roy and Marcel. The rum is 95-year-old British ration rum from the Ypres battlefield!