1920-1939 | Livestock targeted | RAF crimes | Sudan

R.A.F. biplanes machine gun and bomb cattle to starve the Nuer of Sudan

An RAF DH9A flying over the desert.
RAF HMSO – Public domain – Wikimedia

3 May 1920

On 3 May 1920, two RAF DH9A bombers, each equipped with eight 20 lb bombs as well as Vickers and Lewis machine guns, made the first of several air strikes on herds of cattle, belonging to the nomadic Nuer of southern Sudan. The Nuer had been failing to respect the ‘tribal’ boundaries imposed on them by administrators in Khartoum and some groups, under the pressure of constant taxation demands, had made occasional raids against the neighbouring Dinka.1 So the British decided to punish the entire population by killing their cattle and starving them into compliance. It was not a difficult task. RAF pilots considered the herds ‘ideal bombing targets’ since they had been left to graze on small islands in the Sud swampland, which though difficult to find for ground troops, were easy to spot from the air. It is hardly surprising that the attacks were hailed in the official RAF assessments as ‘tremendous’  and a ‘complete success.’2

Unlike the Nuer warriors, who, though suffering heavy casualties in earlier raids, had at least been able to hide among the reeds and tall vegetation, there was no escape for the cornered cattle.3 Colonel C.R.K. Bacon, commanding operations, realised that the new targeting strategy would mean that women, children and the elderly might become the principal victims.  The Nuer regarded their cattle as sacred, and depended almost entirely on the herds they owned for their livelihood, nourishment, leather goods, drums, rugs, clothing, milk, shields and much more. Bacon saw the pastoral group’s cattle as its Achilles heel and hence the quickest and most economical way of crushing its resistance to pacification and centralised control.  So the raids continued relentlessly until 23 May when the Nuer were finally forced to surrender and accept the payment of a fine as an additional punishment. Since the weak and defeated rarely write the history of warfare, we may never know what the consequences were for the population, but besides the immediate casualties of the bombing raids, it is likely that many more subsequently died from diseases related to malnutrition, if not starvation.

‘Ideal bombing targets’ – Cattle in South Sudan
COSV – CC License – Wikimedia.


  1. Barry Renfrew, Wings of Empire: The Forgotten Wars of the Royal Air Force, 1919-1939, The History Press, Stroud, 2019, pp. 59-63 and Douglas H. Johnson, ‘The Fighting Nuer: Primary Sources and the Origins of a Stereotype,’ in Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol 51, No 1 (1981), p. 513.
  2. Cited in Barry Renfrew, Wings of Empire: The Forgotten Wars of the Royal Air Force, 1919-1939, The History Press, Stroud, 2019, pp. 59-63.
  3. Cited in Ibid.

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