By Alex Richards
With the death of Wallenstein, the inaction that had held the Imperial army since Lützen was broken, sparking a new burst of energy that was to culminate in the Peace of Prague little more than a year later, and with it the final collapse of Sweden’s undisputed leadership in the Protestant opposition. The Fall of Regensburg Initially at least it appeared the Swedes were on the front foot in the continuing conflict in Southern Germany. Regensburg had fallen, the movement of Imperial troops south and subsequent defensive positioning towards Saxony meant that most of the advances in Brandenburg and Silesia were rolled back, and Saxon troops even approached Prague once more. Meanwhile Bernhard and Horn were operating essentially unchecked in Bavaria, and the Spanish attempts to advance up the Rhine had been a failure. However, this was something of a mirage. While the advance to Prague sufficiently spooked the Spanish to instruct the Cardinal-Infante Fernando to move towards Franconia after crossing the Alps rather than head directly for the Rhine, it was of secondary importance to Oxenstierna’s efforts to secure Pomerania and Saxony. As such, by the time Archduke Ferdinand- the son and heir of Emperor Ferdinand II, King of Hungary and newly appointed Commander of the Imperial armies- entered Bohemia to meet them, the Swedish army had already retreated. By May 1634, the Archduke had gathered 25,000 men, advanced into Bavaria and there met up with Aldringen who had added 4,000 survivors of the Spanish army (the Duke of Feria having died of typhoid) to the 10,500 Imperial and Bavarian he already commanded. Together, they laid siege to Regensburg on May 23rd, leading Horn and Bernhard to unite their forces and attempt to relieve the city. Despite being outnumbered- the combined armies totalled only 22,000 and the Regensburg Garrison 4,000- the Swedes managed to punch above their weight once more, pushing into Bavaria and fighting a short battle on the Lech on July 22nd that saw Aldringen fall on the battlefield, but the combination of the need to recover from the battle and leadership disputes between the two figures meant that this was to be moot- the army remained stationary for a week, while Regensburg fell only four days later.
The results of this cannot be understated- not only was the Archduke Ferdinand free to advance deeper into the Swedish positions, but the fall of such a significant city combined with the imminent arrival of the Cardinal-Infante created severe disquiet within the Leage of Heilbronn making renewed victory essential to the maintenance of the Swedish position. The potential was there to prevent this however- as with most sieges the Imperial army had suffered from disease and desertion, and had lost 14,000 men. It may well have been possible for the combined Swedish army to repel the Archduke from Regensburg, though with the remnants of that army and the approaching Spanish to contend with, it’s unlikely that this position could have been maintained. The Battle of Nördlingen In the event, the Archduke was free to advance towards Franconia, near simultaneously with the arrival of 11,700 Spanish troops under the Cardinal-Infante over the Alps. The selected target- Nördlingen- was of little strategic value, but it mattered little at this point, it was lightly defended and its fall would signal to the wavering states of the League of Heilbronn that Swedish power was on the wane. Bernhard and Horn moved to defend the city, calling for Oxenstierna to send them reinforcements, but found themselves facing increasingly superior forces, especially once the Cardinal-Infante arrived on September 3rd. The city nearly fell to an assault the following the day, and Bernhard successfully persuaded Horn that they could only wait for the arrival of Johann Phillip Kratz von Scharffenstein on the 5th, as the city would be certain to fall before the 6,000 men under the Count of Solms-Hohensolms could arrive- an assessment he was almost certainly correct about. Even so, with 16,000 men, 9,000 horses and 70 guns the Swedish forces were severely outnumbered, and needed to cross the river before attacking- it’s likely in fact that they wouldn’t have done so had they been fully aware of the size of the army opposing him- some 15,000 cavalry and 20,500 infantry with at least 52 guns. A token force was left behind in the city itself, and the main army attempted to disguise their movements as a retreat towards Ulm before crossing the river and advancing along a single-track road through the Swabian Jura towards the Spanish-Imperial rear. Nördlingen can be described as a battle in which everything went wrong for the Swedish. The approach was slow going, allowing the Spanish to spot them and draw up on a line of hills between the Retzenbach stream and the main army. Bernhard began efforts to clear them from the hills at 4pm, but some three hours later was still fighting for control of the fourth hill along- the Heselberg- and it was not until four hours after Horn arrived at 10pm that they finally took control of the hill. In the meantime, 8,000 Spanish and Bavarian had drawn up on the fifth and final hill- the Albuch, digging themselves in and preventing any attempt at encircling the Imperial army. The next day, rather than advancing into the plain and risking a very difficult direct attack, Bernhard’s exhausted troops were left to rest on the hills, while Horn made attacks on the Albuch from two directions- along the ridgeline, and from the flanks. They attacked at dawn, but were soon repulsed- according to the Protestants due to an exploding powder wagon distracting them, but more likely due to the skill of one of the Spanish regiments counterattacking. Subsequent attacks were increasingly weaker, and even less successful, even with Bernhard attempting to prevent reinforcements by sending troops down the hill to the main line, where the infantry were soon pinned down.
By 10am, what was already looking like a defeat was turning into a disaster. Horn was finally forced to give up his attacks and was forced to retreat, exposing the remaining infantry on the hills, and the Croats advanced along the river at the other end of the battlefield, turning Bernhard’s other flank before he’d even realised it. Bernhard narrowly escaped the battlefield, but Horn and Kratz were captured and only 14,000 of the Swedish army remained (the figure of 21,000 killed or captured given in the Encyclopaedia of War is almost certainly an exaggeration). The imperial forces lost only 2,000. The effects of Nördlingen were far more wide-ranging however. With even Bernhard admitting that the result had been a disaster, morale among Sweden’s German allies collapsed. The League of Heilbronn essentially dissolved itself virtually overnight, and the Imperial forces were free to retake the majority of southern Germany almost unopposed.
Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP