Few operations have held as much drama, courage, and strategic brilliance as “Operation Thunderbolt.” For those uninitiated, this was the daring rescue mission orchestrated by Israel in 1976 to save 102 hostages from an airplane hijacked and redirected to Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
But what were the pivotal moments that made this operation a success? And how did they unfold in a tight sequence against all odds?
This exploration will dive deep into the chronological events that defined Operation Thunderbolt. We’ll piece together a narrative of bravery, meticulous planning, and a relentless pursuit of justice.
We’ll journey through the tense hours and the high-stakes decisions. The goal is to provide a lens into the hearts and minds of those who embarked on what seemed like an impossible mission.
It isn’t just an account of military prowess for the general reader. It’s a tale of human spirit, resilience, and the lengths a nation would go to ensure the safety of its citizens.
The Hijacking: A Crisis Begins
On June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 took off from Tel Aviv, bound for Paris with a layover in Athens. The vacationers and crew aboard could never have fathomed that their journey would intersect with political intrigues.
Shortly after the plane left Athens, four hijackers seized control. Two came from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP-EO). The other two were from Germany’s Revolutionary Cells.
Their demands? The release of 40 Palestinians held in Israel and 13 other detainees incarcerated in Kenya, France, Germany, and Switzerland.
Entebbe Airport: The Hostage Crisis Intensifies
The hijacked plane, now a symbol of an international crisis, touched down on the tarmac of Uganda’s Entebbe Airport the next day, June 28. The humid air was tense, made even more so by the looming presence of Ugandan soldiers and their unpredictable leader, Idi Amin.
Amin, known for his brutal regime and tumultuous relationship with Israel, seemingly showed support for the hijackers. Subsequently, it added another layer of complexity to the already intricate situation.
The original group of 248 passengers dwindled quickly as the hijackers released non-Jewish hostages. Yet, 106 individuals—primarily Israelis and Jews—remained captive, facing an uncertain fate in a dilapidated old terminal building.
As the hijackers broadcasted their demands to the world, Operation Thunderbolt began its conception in secret Israeli defense meetings.
The hostages, while fearful, showed remarkable resilience. Stories later emerged of them trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy, singing songs to keep spirits high, and even celebrating a birthday.
However, the shadow of an impending atrocity grew darker every passing hour. The international community was on edge, and the phrase “Operation Thunderbolt” had yet to become the beacon of hope it would soon become.
Israel Responds: The Birth of Operation Thunderbolt
While the world speculated about potential negotiations, Israel was already several steps ahead. The country’s motto, “Never negotiate with terrorists,” silently echoed as they began devising a high-risk rescue strategy that would later be Operation Thunderbolt.
Authorities gathered preliminary intelligence using sources from within Uganda, satellite imagery, and information from the released hostages.
This invaluable data offered insights into the airport’s layout, hostage locations, and the hijackers’ routines. All of which are essentials for the mission’s success.
The Sayeret Matkal Unit
The meticulous planning and execution fell on the shoulders of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit. They were Israel’s counterpart to the U.S. Navy SEALs or the British SAS.
Their commander, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, would lead this treacherous mission. The blueprint was ambitious: four C-130 Hercules planes would fly a staggering 2,500 miles undetected, skimming just above the Red Sea to evade radar. Their destination? Entebbe Airport.
There, a bold plan awaited execution. Using a black Mercedes and Land Rovers—intended to mimic Idi Amin’s personal convoy—they hoped to catch the terrorists off-guard.
The core idea was simple but audacious: storm the terminal, neutralize the hijackers, rescue the hostages, and return to Israel. And all this, astoundingly, was to be accomplished within a tight window of just 90 minutes.
The Gutsy Execution: Ninety Minutes of Heroism
On July 4, a week after the hijacking, Israeli commandos touched down at Entebbe.
Their arrival was so unexpected that they managed to drive a convoy of vehicles (disguised as Ugandan military) right up to the terminal. With the element of surprise on their side, they stormed the building.
The soldiers fired fiercely, quickly subduing the terrorists. Within minutes, they had neutralized all the hijackers and began rushing the hostages to the planes.
Crossfire claimed three hostages, but they managed to save the majority. With the hostages in tow, the soldiers boarded their aircraft and embarked on their dangerous journey home.
Aftermath and Legacy: Operation Thunderbolt’s Indelible Mark
Operation Thunderbolt left the world in stunned disbelief. In less than two hours, the Israeli forces had executed a mission that military analysts would study for decades.
The operation’s audacity, precision, and sheer will demonstrated not only Israel’s commitment to its citizens but also the power of tactical ingenuity.
While Operation Thunderbolt was a resounding success, it came at a cost. The sole military fatality was the mission’s leader, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu (older brother of future Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu).
Ultimately, the legacy of Operation Thunderbolt is a testament to the lengths a nation will go to protect its own.