In the still of a July night 39 years ago, 200 Israeli commandos arrived at Entebbe Airport.
In the still of a July night 39 years ago, 200 Israeli commandos arrived at Entebbe Airport. They were on a mission to rescue Jewish hostages being held there. From various reports and speaking to eyewitnesses, JOE NAM reconstructed the events leading up to and after Operation Thunderbolt, which was later renamed Operation Jonathan in honour of Lt. Col. Jonathan (Yoni) Netanyahu, the operation commander.
It was a beautiful summer day. The skies were clear blue. At 8:59am, Captain Michel Bacos, pilot of Air France flight 139, received permission from the control tower at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel to take off. It was June 27, 1976.
There were 248 passengers on board. They would not reach their destination – Charles De Gaulle International Airport in Paris – as scheduled.
Although they did not know it, four of them had just said goodbye for the last time, to family members at the airport. As the plane flew towards Athens, Greece, Dora Bloch, 74, Ida Borochovitch, 56, Pasco Cohen, 52 and Jean- Jacques Mimouni, 19, gazed at the waters of the Mediterranean Sea for their last time. Within a week they would be dead.
Two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP-EO), and two Germans – Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann, from the German revolutionary cells in East Germany (the Baader- Meinhof Gang) — boarded the plane with other passengers during the Athens stopover.
Once the plane was in the air, they put the pilot and crew at gunpoint and commandeered the aircraft to Entebbe after a refueling stop in Libya.
On arrival at Entebbe, the hijackers demanded the release of 40 Palestinian militants held in Israel and 13 other detainees imprisoned in Kenya, France, Switzerland and West Germany on charges of terrorism.
A model of Entebbe Airport used to rehearse the attack
They threatened to begin killing hostages if these demands were not met by July 1.
The hijackers also separated Jewish from non-Jewish hostages and the non- Jewish hostages were released. The remaining 105 hostages were all Jews, except for Bacos and his cabin crew, who refused to leave the airport despite being released.
Coming only a few years after the massacre of 11 Jewish athletes and a German police officer by Palestinian Liberation Organisation terrorists (who called themselves Black September) in the Olympic Village during the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany and the 1974 Ma’alot Massacre in northern Israel which left 25 hostages dead, the Palestinian liberation movement appeared to have scored yet another victory.
Israel’s elite counter terrorism commando unit, the Sayeret Matkal, headed by Jonathan (Yoni) Netanyahu did not think so.
Amin v Israel
The event provided Amin with an opportunity to settle some scores with Israel.
Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister from 1969 to 1974, explains Amin’s ire with Israel in her autobiography, My Life: “I hadn’t known Idi Amin when he was training as a paratrooper in Israel, but I had heard even then, when he thought that the sun rose and set on Israel, that he was very eccentric — to put it politely.
“And my last meeting with him in Jerusalem when I was Prime Minister, convinced me that he was really quite mad... ‘I have come to see you,’ he said to me very seriously,’ because I want a few Phantoms (bomber jets) from you. ‘Phantoms! We don’t manufacture Phantoms,’ I answered.
‘We buy them from the United States, when we can — which is not always or often enough. They aren’t things that you buy and sell. Anyhow, why do you need phantoms?’ ‘Oh,’ he said blandly, ‘to use against Tanzania (where former President Milton Obote was exiled)...
“Then he sent me a message, ‘I need 10 million pounds sterling at once.’
“I couldn’t give him that either, so he left Israel in a tremendous huff, went off to Colonel Kaddafi (Gaddafi) of Libya — and Uganda broke diplomatic relations with us in 1972.”
As events unfolded at Entebbe, Amin visited the airport, where he voiced his support for the PFLP and supplied the terrorists with weapons and troops.
In Israel, the crisis appeared so hopeless that the government considered giving in to the hijackers’ demands. As consultations went on in military and government circles, the Sayeret hinted to the political leadership that a rescue was possible. They were given the green light to begin preparations, pending cabinet approval of a rescue mission plan.
The stakes were high. If the mission failed, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his entire cabinet would have to resign, Israel would be humiliated and global terrorism would triumph.
July 4: Netanyahu cannot wait
The Hercules paratroop crew that participated in the mission
As intelligence information started to trickle in, Netanyahu and his unit held a series of brainstorming meetings and rehearsals for the rescue operation. By July 3, the rescue force was nearly ready. It comprised about 200 soldiers, mostly from the Sayeret Matkal.
They were divided into: the ground command and control of 29 men led by Brigadier General Dan Shomron; the Sayeret commando assault group led by Netanyahu, which would storm the terminal building at Entebbe Airport to rescue the hostages and support groups charged with securing the airport, runway and rescue plane, destroying Uganda’s MiG fighter jets on the ground to prevent any possible interceptions by the Uganda Air Force and holding off any attack from outside the airport by the Uganda Army.
The rescue plan was presented to the Israeli military leadership and they were convinced about its feasibility. The political leadership, however, still needed to endorse the mission.
Time was running out. The deadline for hijackers to start killing the hostages had been extended from July 1 to 4, and there were just a few hours to its expiry.
While the politicians debated at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu (right) ordered his unit into four C-30 Hercules transport planes. The rescue mission had begun.
It was a 4,000km flight to Entebbe. If the politicians objected to the mission, the team would have to turn around mid-air and fly back.
Taking off from Israel on different flight paths to lessen suspicion, the planes converged over the Red Sea and flew at low altitude to avoid detection by the Egyptian, Sudanese, and Saudi Arabian air defenses. They then turned south to fly over Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia. The green light from the Israeli cabinet had meanwhile come through for the mission to proceed.
The lead plane was crowded. It carried the assault force and three vehicles.
“I looked back and saw Yoni sleeping in (the lead pilot’s) bed,” Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Shani, lead pilot of the operation, recalls in the afterword to Netanyahu’s posthumous publication, The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu.
“Under normal conditions, if some battalion commander is resting there, I tell him politely but firmly to go rest in the rear of the plane. This time I couldn’t bring myself to do it, because my theory was that the chances of the first group that would storm that building to stay alive were fifty-fifty.
“I said to myself: ‘He’s taking a personal risk in this, that’s for sure.’ On the other hand, I also wanted to lie down. He was curled up on the edge. I lay down next to him, getting closer little by little till I was a few millimetres away from him... I looked at Yoni from about an inch away, nose to nose, and he was sleeping like a baby, utterly at peace...
“The thought flitted through my mind: Where does this calmness of his come from? Soon you’re going into battle, and here you are, sleeping as if nothing is happening, I couldn’t fall asleep myself so I got up and went back to the cockpit.”
In the same book, another commando, looks back: “There was this reddish light and I remember that we saw his (Yoni’s) face. He wasn’t wearing his beret, or his ammo vest or gun... He spoke to the men, smiled at us, said a few words of encouragement to each one. It was as though he were leaving us, as though he knew what was going to happen to him.”
A Mercedes similar to Amin's was used in the raid
It was a stormy night. Approaching Entebbe over Lake Victoria, the Israeli planes hit storm clouds. There was no time to go around; the only way was through.
Shani kept steady at the controls; his cargo of soldiers and equipment had to be on the ground according to extremely strict timing.
In Jerusalem, Rabin and his top officials waited anxiously to hear back from the rescue team. Shortly before 23:00 hours they received confirmation by radio that the planes had reached Lake Victoria.
In the cargo compartment, the soldiers piled into the three vehicles on board — a Mercedes and two Land Rovers — whose engines were already running.
At 23:01, only 30 seconds behind schedule, the aircraft touched down at Entebbe. Even before the plane could come to a halt, the vehicles were coming down the ramp and paratroopers were out on the runway placing emergency beacons next to the runway lights, to guide the remaining three planes in case the control tower switched the runway lights off.
The Mercedes and its Land Rover escorts, picked carefully to dupe the airport security into thinking they were Idi Amin’s convoy, raced to the old terminal. Just in front of the building, two Ugandan soldiers aimed their guns and shouted an order for them to stop.
What followed has been the subject of much debate in Israel since that night.
The Israeli crew folding the ramp of their planes just before take-off
Who are the Sayeret?
Founded in 1957, the Sayeret Matkal, also known as General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, is the unit most people are referring to when discussing the Israeli war against terrorism.
Operatives from this unit have led, or been an instrumental part of, almost every notable counter-terrorist operation conducted on behalf of Israel since 1957 to the present. It is also the primary unit dedicated to hostage rescue missions within Israel.
Chosen from among Israeli’s most promising young people and undergoing intensive training in preparation for service, Sayeret veterans are almost assured of a leadership role in Israeli society upon discharge from the unit.
Among the more recognisable Sayeret veterans today are Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former defence minister Moshe Yaalon, former head of Mossad Danny Yatom and Colonel Moshe Muki Betser.
To be continued . . .
EDITOR’S NOTE: Were you at Entebbe Airport on the night of July 4, 1976? Please contact us on 0772 956 017 or email@example.com
Entebbe Raid series: Part 1