Within PortCityFutures, we work under the assumption that port cities worldwide share distinguishing features and challenges. Two years ago, for example, we posted a blog on the redevelopment of the port of Odessa’s waterfront, as a case study of the phenomenon that many port cities have been going through since the 1980s. Today, however, we continue to see how history rhymes when it comes to the position of port cities in times of war. We asked military historian Joris Ammerlaan to look at port cities as both lifelines and targets in wartime, keeping in mind the port cities of Ukraine’s current situation in particular.
Port cities the world over share a cosmopolitan outlook, formed by transnational bonds of shared communication and purpose. Perhaps it is the memory of the destruction of its own port cities that explains the widespread commiseration felt by Dutchmen over the destruction of Ukrainian ports. As I write this, it is only about a month ago, on 14 May, that the Netherlands commemorated the aerial bombardment of Rotterdam in 1940. Equally recently, the Ukrainian president Zelensky visited the Netherlands, as part of a series of state visits to countries at the forefront of the drive to support Ukraine.
Similar to how the current war in Ukraine has brought destruction to her port cities, several Dutch ports – not just Rotterdam, but also Vlissingen, and Delfzijl – were destroyed in battles during the Second World War, as were many others worldwide: Cherbourg, Stalingrad, Hamburg, Hiroshima … Clearly, war and destroyed ports go together.
This raises an important question: do port cities get destroyed in war as a function of the (infrastructural) importance of such a city, or is destruction rather an outcome of the city hosting an active war zone? The answer is that the one cannot be separated from the other. Port cities often become major war zones in times of war because they are important cities. At the same time, they are important cities because in wartime (but also in peacetime) they form the lifeline of a country. This duality is what makes port cities vibrant, large, and important. It is what gives them the cosmopolitan outlook we started this story with.
The dual functions of a port city as both a major transport hub, and a significant cultural center, cannot be considered as separate reasons for attacking these places. Because they are both socially and economically important, they form a dual pressure point for an enemy to exploit. At least in theory, attacking ports is an attack both on the will of the people, and on the ability of the people to continue the fight.
To illustrate: the main reason Rotterdam was bombed by German forces on 14 May 1940 was not to remove the infrastructural capacity of the city, but to terrorize the Dutch into surrender. In fact, one important infrastructural function of the Port of Rotterdam was – and still is – as an entry point for goods destined for Germany, which is why Germany had preserved Dutch neutrality during the First World War. Whereas later, indiscriminate bombing during the Second World War would act to stiffen the resistance and resolve of the populations affected, the bombardment of Rotterdam is one of the few instances where the enemy’s strategy worked: following the destruction, the Dutch surrendered to spare their other cities a similar fate.
In historical contrast, during the Crimean War (1853-1856; France, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire against Imperial Russia), the main reason to besiege and attack the port of Sevastopol was to deny its use as a logistical base to the Russians. Armies in the field required tremendous amounts of supplies to perform their function, as they expended masses of munitions, materiel, and men every single day. It is the logistics of armies that determine their performance in the field, as their fighting capabilities are dependent on constant resupply. Because the British were able to deny the Russians the use of the port of Sevastopol, they were able to deny them such resupply.
As such, the British could ultimately compel Russian surrender through blockade of the Sea of Azov, however dreadful the British soldiering on land – and this was poor: the Sevastopol siege saw British cavalry undertake the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, giving rise to Lord Tennyson's immortal poetry lines (1854):
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
It is this function of ports as a logistical base that makes them important in wartime. Ports are a vital part of a country's infrastructure, and as such the logistical services provided by ports are central to a country's ability to wage war. This makes them a target, either to deny their use to the enemy, or to conquer them and resupply one's own war effort. It is also why today, the Russian reoccupation of the Crimea and its port and naval base Sevastopol seems of such importance to both parties in the current conflict.
Of course, this same function as a logistics hub leads to ports becoming important cities in peacetime as well. In the same way an army needs constant resupply, economies need reliable transportation of goods. As such, it says a lot that the deals surrounding ongoing transport of grain from Ukraine are considered vital globally. Ports are gateways, in this case for food. Napoleon once quipped that an army marches on its belly, but this goes for all of us. Continued logistical access to one of the breadbaskets of the world profits all involved.
This means that if war breaks out, ports become targets. In the final analysis, the goal in war is to take away the enemy’s ability to prevent the implementation of your policy. To cite that foundational philosopher of warfare, Von Clausewitz (1832): “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” As such, the function of all attacks must be to destroy the enemy’s capability to continue to resist. This means you have to take away both the physical capability of continuing the war – by breaking the enemy’s logistics chains, destroying their weapons, and places of resistance – and also break the enemy’s willingness to fight, their morale. These two reasons are synergetic: they reinforce one another. And as such, port cities are a dual target.
Given the status of ports as both lifelines and targets during war, we can note that Mariupol, Kherson, and once again Sevastopol, are only the latest additions to a long list of port cities that find themselves in the front lines of war – a list that goes back to Troy itself.
Joris Ammerlaan is a military historian and PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam. He is currently writing his dissertation on the US Peace Movement on the eve of the First World War.
This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures research community. It reflects the evolving thoughts of the authors and expresses the discussions between researchers on the socio-economic, spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. This blog was peer-reviewed by members of the PortCityFutures community, and edited by the PortCityFutures editorial team: Carola Hein, Vincent Baptist, Hilde Sennema and Foteini Tsigoni.
Lord Tennyson, A. (1854). The Charge of the Light Brigade. See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45319/the-charge-of-the-light-brigade.
Von Clausewitz, C. (1832; original publication). Vom Kriege. For the 1909 English reprint, see: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1946/1946-h/1946-h.htm.