Swedish Operations in the later Thirty Years War

By MSW Add a Comment 23 Min Read
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

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

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

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

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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version