What was supposed to be a routine flight for the 248 passengers on their way to Paris, France spiraled into a nightmare 7 minutes after the jet rose into the sky from Athens, Greece.
At that moment, Flight 139, an Air France Airbus A300, found itself the latest target in the Palestine Liberation organization’s endless war against Israel.
Aboard were 4 of them. 3 men and 1 woman. 2 male Palestinians, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and male and female Germans, founding members of a radical left wing terrorist organization called Revolutionary Cells.
The objective of both was to win the release of 53 Palestinians, 40 held in Israel and 13 Held in France, Kenya Switzerland and West Germany. If the prisoners were not released at a specified time, they would execute the 94 Jewish passengers in retaliation.
With their new captains, the A300 set course for Benghazi, Libya.
Upon arriving, the jet rolled to a stop and refueling began. During this time a pregnant passenger feigned a miscarriage and managed to get released. In all, some 7 hours passed on the blistering tarmac before the plane began taxiing into takeoff position for departure to its unknown final destination.
In the following hours, news of the hijacking kept a concerned Israeli public glued to TVs and radios as the jet winged its way over a desert landscape to lush tropical forest that seemed to stretch without end. During the time the Jewish passengers were subjected to anti-Semitic rants from the female hijacker that seemed intent on making them as miserable as possible.
As the plane began descending in the darkness, the broad expanse of a freshwater lake appeared to grow before it disappeared into land and the passengers felt the gentle touchdown at a small airport deep in the African jungle, where it parked on the tarmac at 3:15 A.M. at Entebbe, Uganda.
Spotlights glared through the windows as soldiers in camouflaged uniforms surrounded the jet. There were no orders to prepare for debarking, just silence and casual talk among the hijackers. Another 9 hours passed before the plane taxied towards an old terminal building where an airstair bumped against the fuselage and a hatchway opened.
The hijackers screamed at the passengers to hurry off and into the terminal building where they were herded together in a dilapidated departure lounge. Here the hijackers met up with 4 other Palestinians and quickly complimented their pistols, with AK47’s and hand grenades. The terrorists relaxed, not yet issuing demands and waited for another arrival.
A few hours later it came in the sound of an approaching helicopter, which set down close to the terminal. Stepping down from it in a camouflaged uniform was the rotund leader of Uganda, Idi Amin and his 8 year old son in similar dress. He entered the lounge exulting
“Shalom! Shalom!” And began a speech to the captives berating and reassuring them the only way they could be saved was if Israel agreed to the hijackers’ demands. As he walked out, the prisoners were under no illusion that Amin was going to do nothing to free them and, in fact, was likely involved in the plot itself.
Throughout the next day, news trickled all over the globe that the hijackers had set down at Entebbe, and the press stood by awaiting word of their demands. But the anticipated radio transmissions never materialized, leaving the world wondering what demands the terrorists were going to make and what would be the response, especially from Israel.
Israel maintained a simple policy in negotiating with terrorists. There would be no negotiations. Period. For to do so simply emboldened future enemies of the Jewish state to commit more terrorism. Such enemies whose only goal from the beginning was Israel’s destruction. For them, that too, was non-negotiable.
And Israel learned early on that groups of this nature understood and respected one thing.
And so it began with that silent day in Entebbe, that Colonel Ehud Barak, Israel’s Assistant Chief of Military Intelligence and commander of Special Operations Forces, convened an informal session of Israel’s leading Counter-Terrorism experts.
In it, he asked for an assessment of the Ugandan military, and the necessary forces that might be mobilized for a rescue mission should negotiations, if they started, were to fail. Additionally, the Air Force began a feasibility inquiry into sending a rescue force the 2,200 miles to Uganda.
At 3:30 P.M., June 29, the terrorists released their demands over Uganda Radio. All the designated prisoners were to be released and flown to Entebbe by their captive nations. There, the hijackers would join them and fly to a safe haven in the Middle East. A sum of 5million dollars was added for the safe return of the A300. All this must be achieved by 2:00 P.M. Israeli time on July 1st or the hostages would be executed.
In the sweltering insect ridden terminal the hostages settled in for a future of uncertainty when a short while later the German terrorists began a process that harkened back to the days of the holocaust and fueled further the urgency of someone to act.
Amin made another visit that afternoon and gave a speech. A short time after he left, Ugandan soldiers pounded a partition wall with sledgehammers until a jagged entrance was completed.
The female German terrorist began ordering those with Jewish passports through the opening into the other room, eerily reminiscent of the selections by Nazis of who would go to the gas chambers and who would be allowed to live as slaves. In fact, some of the very people transferring to the room were Holocaust survivors, terrified and incredulous that the same thing seemed to be happening again in 1976, and at the hands of a German at that. Thereafter, this became known as the ‘Room of Separation.’
Back in Israel, June 30 began with a number of rescue options presented to Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. None were deemed satisfactory and planning sessions continued onward while the country contacted Amin and tried to convince him to arrest the terrorists before realizing he was colluding with them.
As the day drew to a close, 47 Gentile hostages were released and flown to Paris, supposedly secured by their self-confessed ‘savior’, Idi Amin. At the airport they were greeted by their families and French officials then later debriefed by members of French Secret Service and the Israeli Embassy.
The intelligence the former captives, particularly a former military officer gave proved invaluable; chief among them was the exact location of the hostages, guard routines and the hijacker’s expectation that Israel would not respond, leading to an almost casual nature of security about the place.
On the morning of July 1, the remaining 101 Gentiles boarded another flight from Entebbe. This left 94 Jews and the 12 Air France crew. In Israel, with the 2:00 P.M. deadline looming, the public was greeted by the word SELEKTZIA (Selection) as a banner headline on newspapers across the country. Family members besieged the Israeli government pleading for them to give in to the hijackers’ demands.
Inside a closed room heated arguments raged among Rabin’s cabinet over the proper course of action. With great reluctance they agreed to negotiations and asked for an extension of the deadline, which was granted until July 4. But back at Entebbe, such news brought little comfort, and they them remained unsure if the reprieve of 3 days was just delaying the inevitable.
Now was the time to act.
Operation Thunderbolt: Hostage Rescue at Entebbe Airport
With some time bought, reviews of different rescue proposals began. 4 were presented only to have 3 vetoed as too large or too risky. The final one, involving a smaller force was approved, but still needed a final authorization. With this, designated forces quickly organized in preparation, bringing together pilots, paratroopers and a special operations detachment known as ‘The Unit.’
Led by 30 year old Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan ‘Yoni’ Netanyahu, its official name was Sayeret Matkal. And it was this group that was chosen to lead Operation Thunderbolt, undergoing final polishing at that very moment.
One he received the plan, Netanyahu put his men immediately to work over the next 2 days, practicing breaching and entering mock ups like the building in Entebbe. They ran each rehearsal as many times as possible, tweaking how they would commence the rescue with the fewest minutes between start and finish.
When the time came for the men to be briefed on the operation, they listened as the officer muttered one word amidst his others which formed the crux of Thunderbolt.
4 C130 Hercules transport aircraft would depart Israel, the 1st carrying 29 men of Sayeret Matkal and 52 paratroops. It also carried a black Mercedes limousine configured to look like Amin’s personal vehicle and 2 Land Rover escorts to accompany the car to the terminal. There the Unit members would assault the building as the paratroops secured the airport.
Hercules No.2 would carry 17 more paratroops, 2 armed jeeps and a communications jeep. These were to occupy a newer terminal building and fuel depot along with the entrances to ward off Ugandan counterattacks. They were also tasked with destroying a small contingent of MiG jet fighters at the airport.
Hercules No. 3 would depart 30 men of another Special Forces unit, the Sayeret Golani to provide security and another vehicle. The Golani were to help escort the hostages.
Hercules No. 4 would be the last to land carrying a medical team, 2 vehicles to transport hostages and wounded, along with a 17 man security element. It was this aircraft the hostages would leave on.
With the operation receiving its final review and approval, the force transferred and began boarding the aircraft at 2:20P.M July 3rd, Israeli time. In minutes, the first Hercules lumbered into the air from Lod airport heading toward the Red Sea where the first Israeli’s crossed thousands of years ago with divine help. Now, if all went well, armed men were going to try and bring more across a second time.
For this occasion, ‘The Unit’ donned French ‘lizard’ camo uniforms-the same kind worn by Ugandan soldiers- and blackened their faces and hands. They also carried similar weapons such as Chinese made AK-47’s. Some of the guns had a crude mount with a small flashlight positioned atop the receiver. The rest of the force donned standard Israeli Defense Force clothing and equipment.
Night stretched out over the darkened African continent as the planes maintained their designated intervals. Hours passed by and a monotonous hush pervaded the force until they received word Entebbe was minutes away. Weapons and equipment were rechecked and soon the planes vectored over Lake Victoria for the trail of lights which shined over the wet, gray sheen of the runway.
At 11:00 P.M. wheels bounced as the 1st C130 began braking and throttling back. As it stopped, the paratroop element leaped from the side doors and began placing emergency lights along the edge of the runway as backup should the main lights go out during the assault.
Down came the rear hatch, and the limousine emerged, Ugandan flags fluttering from the front fenders, followed by the 2 land rovers carrying the rest of the assault team. ‘The Unit’s’ weapon selectors were set to single shot. Netanyahu and his men began a steady pace of 25 mph along the approach road to the old terminal.
250 meters from the building a Ugandan soldier appeared on either side of the road. Netanyahu sitting in the right hand front passenger side raised a silenced .22 pistol and began firing along with a comrade at the 2 men.
One of them collapsed to his knees while the other bolted into the darkness. The wounded man rose back to his feet and fired a shot from his AK, the crack echoing into the night. A stutter from a machine gun on a Land Rover tore into him felling him by the road.
Surprise was lost.
The motorcade revved into a high speed dash toward the building. Tires slid to a stop on the wet pavement as the element jumped out of the limousine and Land Rovers. Netanyahu shouted for his men to assault the building. Rapid gunfire followed fleeing Ugandan soldiers scattering about.
Inside one of the German terrorists screamed “the Ugandan’s have gone crazy. They are shooting at us!” He fired a burst through a glass windowpane before a fusillade of bullets ripped into him.
His un-aimed burst scored a mortal hit. Yonatan Netanyahu fell to the ground.
Doors flew open and the team stormed into the terminal, shooting well aimed shots into the 7 terrorists before making their way through the building, killing Ugandan’s trying to hide and fire back.
In the hostage room megaphones barked, “Everybody lie down! We are the Israeli Army!
Muki Betser the 2nd in command, radioed from the terminal. “Hostages secure. Team intact. No casualties.”
“Yoni’s down,” came the reply.
They retrieved Netanyahu’s body and began filing the living hostages and bodies of 4 killed in the shootout out toward Hercules No .4, where Sayeret Golani formed a funnel to guide them in.
Across the rest of the airport, the paratroopers occupied the new terminal without firing a shot. Other paratroopers arrived near the MiG’s and started blowing them up, while engaging more Ugandan soldiers.
Hercules No. 4 roared down the runway and lifted off before the remaining forces began returning to board the final 3 aircraft.
In all 99 minutes had been spent on the ground before the last plane left, leaving in its wake the shattered, delusional dreams of 7 terrorists and the painful embarrassment of their patron Idi Amin. For him, it marked the beginning of the end of his brutal reign over Uganda.
For Israel and the entire free world, the men on those 4 aircraft sent a message that future hijackers took to heart. No longer would the Jewish people be hesitant to send its soldiers to the ends of the earth to rescue its people from the cowards who hid behind words such as idealism or liberation.
As dawn broke on the 4th, halfway around the world, America celebrated its bicentennial, while a tiny Middle Eastern nation that had been surrounded by enemies and fighting them since its birth, just proved itself in the previous hours to be one of the greatest champions of freedom yet.
The cost of Entebbe was as follows:
- 1 commando killed
- 5 commandos wounded
- 4 hostages killed
- 10 hostages wounded
- 7 terrorists killed
- Approximately 45 Ugandan soldiers killed
- Unknown number of Ugandan soldiers wounded
- 11 MiG fighters destroyed
(Featured Image: Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan ‘Yoni’ Netanyahu from Gazette.net)