Swedish Operations in the later Thirty Years War


The brief review of Swedish operations in the Thirty Years War after the death of Gustav Adolf would be incomplete without some mention of the lightning operations carried out by Field Marshal Lennart Torstensson (1603–1651). He took over operations in Germany after the death of Johan Banér on 10 May 1641, and his campaigns resulted in what might be called a period of Swedish revival based on mobility and iron discipline.

Torstensson was one of the last survivors of Gustav Adolf’s great lieutenants. Due largely to his year of imprisonment after being captured at Alte Veste, he had become a sickly, dissolute, and prematurely old man. He was so racked by gout that he could barely walk and sign his name. He had been in Sweden and left that war-weary and financially strapped country with 7,000 raw recruits. Upon arrival he was confronted with another mutiny among the mercenaries, which, despite his ailments, he managed to put down.

After a period of reorganization, in 1642 he began his fast-moving campaigns that are second only to Gustav Adolf’s in military achievement. The campaigns brought him to Saxony, Bohemia, Denmark, and Moravia. He won four notable victories that brought him to the very gates of Vienna. His fame as a successful military commander was marred, however, by destructiveness and brutality. He made no attempt to pay the troops, which comprised an open invitation for them to to plunder and which brought the worst thugs into his service. His method of enforcing discipline was little short of spreading terror as he routinely relied on the lash, the rack, and the gallows. He showed equal lack of pity for prisoners and noncombatants. In Saxony he left a trail of burning villages as he moved through the territory in 1642.

What characterized Torstensson’s military campaigns was relentless and rapid movement, and unpredictable maneuvers which left both friends and foes confused. The Saxon army was soundly defeated at Schweidnitz by a few speedy maneuvers followed by blows which staggered the opponents and put them to flight, minus their artillery. Having disposed of the Saxons, Torstensson moved into Moravia and laid the countryside waste. Olmütz was captured and the Swedish army advanced to within twenty-five miles of Vienna before falling back into Saxony when faced by a much stronger army under Archduke Leopold (1614–1662).


The Swedes had already begun a siege of Leipzig when the archduke caught up with them. This time Torstensson did not withdraw but faced his pursuers in what is known as the Second Battle of Breitenfeld, on 2 November 1642. The imperial forces were commanded by Archduke Leopold and Field Marshal Ottavio Piccolomini (1599–1656). The imperial army is said to have numbered 26,000 men when the Saxon contingent of about 1,700 is counted. The Swedish army was inferior in numbers, having about 19,000 men.

The two armies camped for the night, with the imperial forces on the east side of Seehausen facing west. Torstensson was at Breitenfeld. Both armies advanced on the morning of 2 November with Torstensson drawing up in battle order in front of the village of Linkwald. Piccolomini recommended to Leopold that sixteen cavalry regiments be sent north around the woods to turn the Swedish left flank. This was done.

Torstensson shifted his army to confront the attack against his left, and the action was underway by 1000 hours. While the imperial attack was hampered because of an extension of the woods that split their advance, they made some progress against the Swedish center. However, the decisive action was taking place on the Swedish right where Generals Avid Wittenberg (1606–1657) and Torsten Stalhansk (1594–1644) led a devastating cavalry attack against the imperial right under General Hans Puchheim (1605–1657). The Swedish advance was so rapid that Puchheim did not have time to properly deploy his troops.

Several regiments of the imperial first line broke and fled even before contact was made, and this led the Saxons in the second line to also flee. Stalhansk led the pursuit of the fleeing imperial cavalry and Saxons while Wittenberg led the rest of the Swedish cavalry back behind the Swedish battle-line to assist the Swedish left under Colonel Erik Slang (1600–1642). That wing, which had advanced in a more deliberate manner, was under heavy pressure after Slang was killed as Croat cavalry were in the process of turning the flank. General Johan Königsmarck (1600–1653), commanding the cavalry in the second line, was able to hold the flank long enough for Wittenberg to arrive around noon. The Swedes swept around the enemy flank and drove it back on the center.

Archduke Leopold and Piccolomini led their bodyguards in an unsuccessful and desperate counterattack to try to restore the situation. The archduke almost lost his life. The infantry south of the woods was trapped and surrendered after a short resistance.

The Swedes had won the battle through smashing cavalry charges. Leo -pold escaped, but only after losing half his army in killed or prisoners, who immediately took service with the victor. One source reports that Torstensson himself—virtually bound to his horse and reins—led the charge against the imperial left wing, separating it from the infantry.

The Swedish losses were 4,000 killed or wounded while the imperial losses were 8-10,000 dead and captured. They also lost all their artillery—46 guns—their field treasury, and supply train. Leipzig fell to the Swedes on 7 December 1642, and this time it remained in their hands until 1650. News of the defeat struck fear in Catholic Germany. However, like so many other battles, it did not lead to decisive strategic results.

Torstensson returned to Moravia but was then ordered against Denmark, which had begun to side with the Empire during the last years of the war. The reason for the Swedish surprise attack on Denmark and Norway was to punish Denmark for joining with the emperor and to insure that their attempts to mediate an end to the war ceased.

The emperor had sent an army north to help his new ally. Leaving a force to hold Denmark, Torstensson turned back south, eluding the imperial forces and spreading devastation through Hapsburg holdings in the north. The imperial forces finally caught up with Torstensson, but suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Juterborg.

Despite now enjoying naval superiority, the war did not initially go well for the Swedes in the Scandinavian Peninsula. Field Marshal Horn was recalled from retirement to lead an army of 10,600 men against Skåne, the Danish held part of southern Sweden. Horn captured Helsingborg and blockaded Malmö while another army occupied the Norwegian province of Jämtland. The local Skåne militia stopped Horn’s advance and began raiding Swedish territory. The Norwegian army blockaded Gothenburg from land while a Danish fleet was stationed outside the harbor.

The first Danish-Swedish naval engagement ended in a Danish victory over a Dutch mercenary fleet in Swedish service. A 41-ship Swedish fleet was trapped in Kiel Bay when it withdrew after a long-range bombardment by the Danish fleet. The Danes landed guns and bombarded the Swedish ships from the shore. The Swedish ships were now under command of General Karl Gustav Wrangel (field marshal from 1646) and he managed to slip out of the trap with lights extinguished. The emperor had meanwhile sent an army under Field Marshal Gallas to assist the Danes, although there was no formal alliance.

King Kristian IV prepared to ferry an army to Sweden to relieve Malmö and drive Horn out of the province. A Norwegian counterattack had already driven the Swedes out of Jämtland.

Meantime the Swedish fleet had been repaired and had linked up with the remnants of the Dutch mercenary fleet. With a combined force of 37 ships the Swedes found the Danish fleet under Admiral Mundt at Fehmarn Island on 23 October 1644. Half the Danish fleet had already been laid up for the winter, leaving them with only 17 undermanned ships. The surprise attack succeeded completely and only three of the Danish ships escaped, Admiral Mundt was killed.

The Swedish attack on Denmark did not make their French ally happy. They had reached agreement with the Dutch Republic in January 1644 to limit Swedish gains since they did not want Sweden in complete control of the entrance to the Baltic. Peace talks opened at the border town of Brömsebro in southern Sweden in February 1645 and the treaty was signed in August. Sweden gained virtually all her demands, despite not having had any spectacular results in the land war. She was awarded the Baltic islands of Ösel and Gotland, and Denmark had to relinquish the province of Halland on the western Swedish coast for 30 years as an assurance that the peace would be kept. The Norwegians lost the provinces of Jämtland and Här-jedalen.


After Juterborg, Torstensson invaded Bohemia where he met another army of imperial and Bavarian troops at Jankau, on 6 March 1645. The imperial and Bavarian troops that Torstensson faced at Jankau were of higher quality than any he had yet encountered. The two armies were evenly matched in number at 16,000 each, with Field Marshal Hatzfeldt holding a slight advantage in cavalry while Torstensson had a similar advantage in infantry. However, the Swedes had a substantial superiority in artillery—60 to 26 tubes.

The Swedes won the battle through superior and steadfast leadership at the same time as the other side made several errors and failed to coordinate actions. Torstensson’s maneuvers, shielded by woods, confused the imperial commander, allowing the Swedes to eliminate enemy detachments one by one. Torstensson reported that he lost only 600 men. The imperial troops lost half their army, including 4,000 prisoners. Field Marshal Johan Götz was killed along with five senior officers—two colonels and three lieutenant colonels. The imperial commander, Field Marshal Hatzfeldt, was captured along with five generals, eight colonels and fourteen lieutenant colonels.25 Nearly all of the veteran Bavarian cavalry perished.

The ransoming of captured senior officers had become commonplace at this stage of the Thirty Years War. The warring parties saw no advantage in keeping these prisoners, and their exchange had become a source of revenue. Field Marshal Torstensson allowed the whole imperial general staff captured at Jankau their freedom in return for 120,000 riks-dollars.

Transylvania entered into an alliance with Sweden in 1643, and agreed to invade Hungary and Silesia. The Swedish purpose in encouraging this was to divert the emperor’s attention while Torstensson dealt with Denmark. While Transylvania’s entry into the war caused considerable alarm, the Hungarian incursion ran into more resistance than had been expected. The Transylvanians were not ready to do anything further until they had active support from Sweden. In the meantime they accepted Ferdinand’s offer for negotiations.

Transylvania became more active in the wake of Jankau and the receipt of French subsidies. News of the imperial debacle Jankau caused considerable alarm in Vienna. Most forces were withdrawn behind the Danube, and the militia, consisting of 5,500 citizens and students, was called up to reinforce the 1,500 man garrison.

Torstensson encountered problems when he reached the Danube. His Finnish engineers were accustomed to securing boats to build bridges, but all the local boats had been moved to the southern bank of the river. The 14,200 Transylvanian troops which had joined him were proving unreliable, and he was worried about the link to his base. It was decided to capture Brün while he waited for reinforcements. An outbreak of plague resulted in the loss of 8,000 Swedes and Transylvanians during the siege.

Negotiations between the Empire and Transylvania had meanwhile resumed, and the Emperor’s offer for peace was accepted in August 1645. This forced the Swedes to lift the siege of Brün but, encouraged by the peace treaty between Sweden and Denmark, Torstensson decided to try once more to take Vienna. The imperial forces south of the Danube had now grown to over 20,000 while Torstensson, now seriously ill, had about 10,000. He cancelled his attempt and moved his forces north through Saxony and into Thuringia. Here he turned over command of the Swedish army in Germany to Field Marshal Karl Gustav Wrangel (1613–1676).

The Thirty Years War was beginning to wind down. The cautious French Marshal Turenne combined with Field Marshal Wrangel to devastate Bavaria, forcing the 73-year-old Maximilian to sue for a truce. Fearing that such a truce would lead to a French withdrawal from the war, Wrangel opposed granting a truce but finally relented. The Truce of Ulm was agreed to on 14 March 1647.

Brandenburg and Saxony had already been forced to conclude truces with the Swedes—Brandenburg, now under Elector Friedrich Wilhelm, in 1641 and Saxony in 1645 after its isolation following the Battle of Jankau. The terms were rather lenient. Sweden accepted Saxon neutrality in return for a payment of 11,000 thalers a month for the Swedish garrison in Leipzig and freedom of movement through Saxony. In return Sweden agreed to lift their siege of the Saxon garrison of Magdeburg.

Field Marshal Wrangel’s doubts about the wisdom of the Ulm Truce proved to be correct, since the French stood to benefit most from it. Swedish-French relations were also soured by the defection of six French cavalry regiments during a “lack-of-pay mutiny.” These regiments took service with the Swedes! The Emperor was able to bribe Maximilian to break the Ulm Truce on 7 September 1647.

Maximilian’s breach of the truce had the effect of improving Swedish-French relations to the point where Marshal Turenne and Field Marshal Wrangel united to invade Bavaria. The imperial troops were under the command of Field Marshal Peter Melander (1589–1648), a very capable officer. He was now commanding the last Hapsburg army left in Germany, a force of less than 16,000 with only enough horses for about one third of his cavalry. The allies, who had a clear superiority with 22,000 troops, caught up with the imperial army in heavily wooded terrain near the village of Zusmarshau sen. General Raimond Montecuccoli (1609–1680) commanded the rear guard of the withdrawing imperial army and carried out his task in a spirited manner. Pursued by six Swedish and three French cavalry regiments, he was finally outflanked. Melander turned around with part of his force to extricate his rear guard, but was mortally wounded in the chest. The action of the rear guard had bought the time needed to get the demoralized remnants of the imperial army behind prepared entrenchments, from which they continued their withdrawal after darkness, abandoning their guns and trains.

Although the allies had failed to destroy the imperial forces at Zusmars -hausen, the end was inevitable. The imperial remnants repelled several allied attempts to cross the Lech River until Field Marshal Wrangel, in an attempt to repeat Gustav Adolf’s success, had his cavalry swim the river. Luck was on his side as the imperial outposts reported that the allies were across the Lech in force. General Jobst Gronsfeld (1598–1662), now in command of the imperial forces, withdrew to Ingolstadt, abandoning southern Bavaria to the allies. The imperial army dissolved during the retreat, dropping to 5,000 effectives.

In a sure sign of an empire in trouble, Gronsfeld was fired and he was followed by a number of successors until Field Marshal Piccolomini was settled on. Meanwhile the allies devastated Bavaria, sparing only Munich, in order to force Maximilian to terms. He and his court had already fled to Salzburg.

The imperials and Bavarians were eventually able to recover somewhat to a combined strength of 24,000. Turenne and Wrangel retired slowly to avoid a possible reverse that would complicate peace negotiations. The Swedes were still besieging Prague.


The emperor finally agreed to sign what became known as the Treaties of Westphalia, documents that had been negotiated over several years. There were actually two treaties, with the empire settling with Sweden in the Peace of Osnabrück and with France in the Peace of Münster. The treaties were formally sworn and signed on 24 October 1648.

However, almost six years passed before the last foreign garrison left, since the countryside now swarmed with unemployed and lawless mercenaries. And despite the end of the Thirty Years War, peace did not return to Europe. England and Scotland were in the middle of a rebellion, and France became embroiled in the civil war of the Fronde. In addition, waves of Swedes, Russians, and Cossacks invaded Poland and Lithuania between 1648 and 1656. As much as one third of the population was left dead in their wake. Poles remember the period as the Deluge and consider it the worst catastrophe in their tragic history of calamities.

Sweden received several important territories in north Germany by the Treaties of Westphalia, primarily in Pomerania. The acquisition of Bremen gave Sweden a base on the North Sea. The treaties also assured that the Baltic had become a Swedish lake, at least temporarily, as hoped for by Gustav Adolf. The Swedish forces in Germany numbered about 70,000 in 1648. Almost half were scattered in 127 garrisons or strongpoints, strategically located.30 The localities where the troops were located were required to pay maintenance fees as long as the troops were present. Germany and the Empire had to pay huge sums for their withdrawal or disbandment—15 million thalers from the Empire and 5 million more from the local German communities. Accelerated withdrawals called for additional payments.

The only power to totally reject the Peace of Westphalia, not surprisingly, was the Papacy. Pope Innocent X denounced it as null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damniable, reprobate, insane and empty of and effect for all time. He was politely ignored by the Catholic powers.

Pagden writes that it was defeat on the battlefield that forced the Christian churches in Europe to relinquish their hold over individual judgment. It can be argued that we have now, in the 21st century, returned to a period where organized religion is very active in influencing the political leanings of individual believers, with the rise of Islam being a case in point.

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