This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
On 3 July 1976, Israeli commandos carried out a daring raid to free more than 100 hostages held by pro-Palestinian terrorists at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Ever since, the raid has been portrayed by Israelis and others as a brilliantly planned and perfectly executed hostage rescue. Yet a close study of top-secret documents and interviews with key participants reveals a very different picture: of a mission almost derailed by political and military infighting, and one whose ultimate success was heavily contingent on luck.
Day 1: Sunday 27 June 1976
The drama began when an Air France Airbus was hijacked en route from Tel Aviv to Paris. On hearing the news, Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin set up an emergency committee and sent the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) elite anti-terrorist unit Sayeret Matkal (‘The Unit’) to Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, in case the hijacked plane returned to Israel.
Instead, it was flown to Benghazi in Libya where a single female hostage was allowed to disembark after she faked a miscarriage. She told British and Israeli intelligence that the four hijackers – three men and a women –were part of a rogue offshoot of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a terrorist organisation committed to Israel’s destruction and led by Wadie Haddad. In fact, only two were Haddad’s men; the others were Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann, founder members of an affiliated leftwing West German terrorist group known as Revolutionary Cells (RC).
That evening, the refuelled plane left Benghazi for an unknown destination with the hijackers and 253 passengers and crew on board.
Day 2: Monday 28 June
Just after 3am, the plane landed at Entebbe Airport in Uganda where the hijackers were joined by three more armed Palestinian terrorists. The Ugandans made no attempt to intervene because their president, Idi Amin, was in league with Haddad and knew of the hijacking in advance. His soldiers helped to guard the hostages after they had been taken off the plane and put into the former departure lounge of the airport’s disused old terminal.
That afternoon, Amin visited the hostages and said he was trying to secure their release. “I know that you are innocent,” he told them, “but the guilty one is your government.”
Day 3: Tuesday 29 June
After lunch, the hostages were divided into two groups: Israelis and non-Israelis, though a handful of Orthodox Jews were included in the former group. This terrified the Israelis and reminded some concentration camp survivors of the wartime Nazi selections. When Michel Cojot, a French Jew, encouraged some of the crew to remain with the Israelis, they refused. “We have wives and children,” said one.
A couple of hours later, the terrorists told the non-Israelis that the most vulnerable would be released the following morning “for humanitarian reasons”. The hostages duly drew up a list of sick and old people, and mothers with children.
Meanwhile, in Israel, the government had received news of the hijackers’ demands: the release of 53 “freedom fighters” imprisoned in five countries – including 40 in Israel – by noon on Thursday. If not, they would begin killing hostages. Rabin responded by requesting that Lieutenant-General Motta Gur, the IDF chief of staff, attend the evening meeting of the emergency committee.
At that meeting, Rabin asked Gur whether the military “had any way to rescue the hostages”. Gur said not yet. In that case, replied Rabin, they would have to consider negotiation.
Later, defence minister Shimon Peres discussed a possible rescue with senior IDF officers. Among the suggestions was Israeli Air Force (IAF) chief Benny Peled’s proposal to drop 1,000 paratroopers at Entebbe from Hercules C-130s. Gur dismissed the plan as “fantastic”, but all were encouraged by Peres to “continue raising ideas”.
Day 4: Wednesday 30 June
At noon, the terrorists released 47 vulnerable hostages, including 12-year-old Olivier Cojot who, on reaching Paris that evening, gave vital information about the old terminal, the terrorists and the attitude of the Ugandans to “some Israeli people” (men from Mossad, the country’s secret service), as did “a veteran officer of the French army”.
Day 5: Thursday 1 July
At an early-morning meeting of the emergency committee, Gur said that none of his planners’ three rescue plans – a seaborne attack across Lake Victoria, a parachute drop, and forces hidden in a civilian plane – was close to operational. “In that case,” said Rabin, “I intend to propose to the full cabinet that we negotiate.”
Shimon Peres objected on principle, saying it would encourage more terrorism. But Rabin was adamant and the full cabinet, meeting an hour later, agreed, as did the leaders of the opposition. It would not be a tactical ruse to gain time, said Rabin, and Israel would “keep her side of any bargain”. Word was at once conveyed to Entebbe, via the French.
At Entebbe, the hostages were counting down the minutes to the deadline when Idi Amin arrived with momentous news. He had persuaded the terrorists to release a second batch of 100 non-Israeli hostages and to extend the deadline to 2pm on Sunday 4 July.
This gave the IDF three days to perfect a rescue plan. Aware, now, that Amin was helping the terrorists, they abandoned the schemes with no exit strategy and concentrated instead on one that involved landing four C-130 transport planes at the airport, “freeing the hostages, and flying out”. The first plane would contain The Unit’s assault force and three vehicles – including a Mercedes limousine – to transport it to the old terminal. The follow-up planes would bring in reinforcements, armoured cars and medical personnel.
Peres approved the mission, codenamed Operation Thunderbolt. Gur was less impressed, dubbing it a “charlatan” plan that might result in another Bay of Pigs, the disastrous CIA-resourced invasion of Cuba in 1961. What was needed was more intelligence. But, in the meantime, secret preparations would continue.
The obvious man to lead the assault team was The Unit’s commander, Yoni Netanyahu, just back from an exercise in the Sinai. But Netanyahu, the older brother of future Israeli prime minister Benjamin, was close to burnout and unpopular with some of his men. So Ehud Barak was chosen instead, with a furious Netanyahu as his deputy.
Day 6: Friday 2 July 1976
Among the second batch of released hostages who arrived in Paris in the early hours was Frenchman Michel Cojot who gave Mossad more vital intelligence about the terrorists and the terminal layout.
Soon after, Peres received the welcome news that Kenya – with whom Israel maintained close security links – would allow the rescue planes to refuel in Nairobi. He at once informed Gur and they both briefed the prime minister on the plan. Rabin was not convinced. The operation was, he said, the “riskiest… we’ve known” and the IDF’s intelligence incomplete. Preparations could continue but the mission was “subsidiary to ongoing negotiations”.
The Unit’s assault team practised without Ehud Barak who, at the last minute, was ordered to fly to Kenya to take charge of the refuelling. Netanyahu assumed command, with experienced soldier Muki Betser drilling the assault teams. The Ugandans are “not going to shoot at us” in a Mercedes, Betser told his men, but “if they do… let the back-up crews handle it. We concentrate on the break-in.”
To check that the lead plane could land in darkness, Gur went on a hair-raising dry run to the Sinai that almost ended in disaster when the pilot mistook a perimeter fence for the runway. Next came a full-scale dress rehearsal of the rescue, one viewed as “very bad” and unrealistic by a senior officer. But Gur seemed satisfied. “The rehearsal went well,” he told Peres, “I think the plan will work.”
Some of The Unit’s junior officers were less confident and considered appealing to ministers to stop the operation “before it ends in disaster”. Cooler heads urged delay and in the morning the officers voiced their concerns to Netanyahu who dispelled them one by one.
Day 7: Saturday 3 July
At 11.20am Israel time, Gur told the emergency committee that the rescue plan was viable. Rabin still had reservations, however, notably out-of-date intelligence. Earlier he had told an aide that a successful operation would require fewer than 25 hostages fatalities. Any more and his government would resign.
When the full cabinet met at 1pm, Rabin threw caution to the wind. “We have a military option,” he announced. “It has been thoroughly examined and recommended by the chief of staff… We have to take it, even if the price is heavy.” While each minister had his say, and many were pessimistic, Gur and Peres left to watch the planes depart from the nearby Lod Air Force Base. Moments before they took off, photos of Entebbe Airport were given to the mission commander. Taken by a Mossad agent in a light plane, they confirmed the old terminal was lightly guarded.
After a brief refuelling stop in the Sinai, the heavily loaded C-130s struggled to get airborne for the second leg to Entebbe. They flew at barely 100 feet to evade radar detection from hostile states and kept radio silence. Twenty minutes into the flight came word from Tel Aviv: the cabinet had approved the mission. There would be no turning back.
Day 8: Sunday 4 July
Seven hours later, just one minute after midnight, the first plane landed at Entebbe Airport. The runway lights were still on and the pilot had not needed to use his radar. He quickly reduced power – to let paratroopers jump off with electric lanterns for the follow-up planes – and taxied past the new terminal building to the access strip that led to the old terminal. There he stopped the plane and lowered its ramp, allowing a black Mercedes and two Land Rovers, packed with Netanyahu, Betser and 30 fighters from The Unit, to head down the old runway towards the old terminal.
Turning left onto the terminal’s approach road, they were confronted by two Ugandan sentries, one of whom lifted his rifle and shouted “Advance!” Betser knew from service in Uganda that this was standard procedure and the soldier would not fire. But, ignoring Betser’s protests, Netanyahu ordered the driver to “cut to the right and we’ll finish him off”. The silenced bullets only wounded the sentry and, assuming he was about to fire back, an Israeli shot him from one of the Land Rovers, prompting more loud gunshots. With all surprise lost, and Betser fearing the worst, Netanyahu ordered the men out of the vehicles, when they were still 50 yards short of their target.
With Betser and the break-in teams leading, they raced for the old terminal’s main hall, praying they would get there in time. Bullets came out of the darkness and Betser fired back, hitting another Ugandan sentry. Finding the first of the main hall’s entrances blocked, Betser ran on. Moments later, Netanyahu was shot from the control tower as he was about to set up his command post.
By now, the sound of gunfire had driven the terrorists back inside the main hall and woken most of the hostages. One saw Wilfried Böse aim his Kalashnikov at those near him and feared he was about to shoot. But the German chose not to, instead urging the hostages to move to safety. He then threw a grenade out of the open window, fell to the floor and fired through the glass door at an approaching figure. His bullets narrowly missed an Israeli commando who fired back, hitting Wilfried Böse in the head.
Within seconds four Israeli commandos, including Betser, had entered the hall and cut down three more terrorists, including Kuhlmann. Their bullets also struck and mortally wounded three hostages. In the adjacent rooms, and on the floor above, their comrades killed the other three Palestinian terrorists and any Ugandan soldiers they encountered. By 12.07am, barely six minutes after landing, the old terminal was secure and the remaining hostages safe. Once the troops from the other three planes had secured the airport, the hostages were loaded onto the fourth Hercules and left for Nairobi at 12.52am. The rescue had taken just 51 minutes.
Of the 105 hostages in Uganda at the time of the raid, one was in a Kampala hospital (and was later murdered on Amin’s orders), three were mortally wounded by Israeli bullets and the remaining 101 were rescued. They were met at Ben Gurion Airport by cheering crowds and their emotional relatives.
Rabin later described the rescue as “bold, resourceful and sophisticated”, and one of the IDF’s “most exemplary victories from both the human and moral, and the military-operational points of view”. So it was. But it was also a mission marred by political infighting, professional jealousy, hasty planning and tactical blunders that almost ended in disaster. That it did not was down to a combination of courage, luck and a last-minute display of humanity on the part of a doomed terrorist.
Operation Thunderbolt: The people and the places
The straight lines (except the one from Entebbe to Nairobi) denote the path of Air France flight 139. Having taken off from Athens en route from Tel Aviv to Paris, the plane was diverted by terrorists to Benghazi in Libya where it refuelled, before flying on to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. The remaining lines show the flight path of the four Israeli Hercules planes on their raid to liberate the hostages. They refuelled in Kenya before returning to Tel Aviv.
Mapping out the rescue mission
1) A fake motorcade, containing a Mercedes limousine and two Land Rovers, advances towards the airport’s old terminal
2) The convoy stops and commandos run towards the old terminal
3) Yoni Netanyahu is shot
4) Armoured vehicles secure the area
5) Israeli commandos enter the building at four points
27 June 1976, 12.10pm Air France flight 139 is hijacked by four terrorists after taking off from Athens, en route from Tel Aviv to Paris.
28 June 1976, 3.20am The plane lands at Entebbe Airport, Uganda. Joined by three comrades, the terrorists move the hostages to the disused old terminal building.
29 June 1976, 3.30pm The Israeli government receives the hijackers’ demands: the release of 53 imprisoned “freedom fighters” – including 40 in Israel – by noon on 1 July or the hostages will be killed.
30 June 1976, 12pm The terrorists release a first batch of 47 “vulnerable” hostages. Some give vital information to Israeli intelligence.
1 July 1976, 10am The Israeli cabinet votes unanimously to negotiate to free the hostages.
1 July 1976, 12.40pm Ugandan president Idi Amin informs the hostages that, thanks to his intervention, the terrorists have agreed to release a second batch of 100 hostages and extend the deadline to 2pm on Sunday 4 July.
3 July 1976, 1am IDF chief of staff Motta Gur tells minister of defence Shimon Peres that the rehearsal for a rescue mission “went well and I think the plan will work”.
3 July 1976, 3.41am Four heavily laden Hercules planes, carrying 200 Israeli commandos, four armoured cars and a medical team, take off from an airfield in the Sinai and head south towards Uganda.
4 July 1976, 12.01am Hercules One lands at Entebbe Airport, followed by the other three aircraft a few minutes later.
4 July 1976, 12.52am Hercules Four takes off from Entebbe Airport with 101 rescued hostages. Three more are either dead or mortally wounded. The remaining hostage – grandmother Dora Bloch – is in a Kampala hospital and is later murdered on Amin’s orders.
Saul David is a historian and author of Operation Thunderbolt (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015).