The name “Entebbe” and the operation with which it is associated enjoy a special place in the annals of the ongoing war against terrorism. To the people of Israel, and to many others, it was a declaration that free men need not submit to terrorist blackmail and extortion, no matter how impossible the alternatives may seem.
Entebbe Diary is dedicated to the scores of men who flew to Africa and back, and to the hundreds more who, by their unstinting efforts in planning and preparation, made the mission possible, and whose hearts went with their comrades to Entebbe.
“The basic assumption in our work is to prepare in the best possible fashion, so that we may stand quietly on the day of judgment, when it comes, in the knowledge that we did everything we could in the time that we had.”
Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Netanyahu, killed in action, Entebbe, July 4, 1976
At 6:45 on the morning of June 27, 1976, Singapore Airlines flight 763 landed at Athens Airport en route from Bahrain via Kuwait. Of the five disembarking passengers, four headed for the transit area to check in for Air France 139 to Paris, then settled down to a long wait in the transit lounge.
At 8:59 on the same morning, Captain Michel Bacos, at the controls of Air France 139, took off from Ben Gurion Airport on what promised to be a routine flight to Paris via Athens.
As the Airbus made its final approach to Athens, the boarding passengers, 58 in all, were being processed through passport and customs formalities. Nobody was on duty at the metal detector in the passenger corridor and the policeman at the fluoroscope was paying little attention to the screen at his side. In the line passing through to the bus that would take them across the tarmac to flight 139, were a twenty-five year old woman traveling on an Ecuadorian passport in the name of Ortega and, a few places behind her, a young blond-haired man whose Peruvian passport identified him as A. Garcia. Further back in the line were two dark-skinned youngsters with Bahraini and Kuwaiti travel documents.
The Airbus completed its approach to flight path “Red 19” and touched down at 11:30, to taxi to its parking spot, disgorge its 38 Athens-bound passengers and take on its 58 newcomers.
At 12:20 the flight was airborne and climbing steadily to its cruising height of 31,000 feet. The stewards and stewardesses were already busy in the galleys preparing lunch for the 246 passengers. Eight minutes after takeoff, “Ortega” and “Garcia” and their two Arab companions made their move. The young woman left her first-class seat and took up station at the front of the cabin; in the tourist compartment, the youngsters were already on their feet with guns in their hands. The blond youngster, a revolver in one hand and a grenade in the other, burst through the unlocked cockpit door.
Within minutes of the takeover of flight 139, Ben Gurion Airport management and the Air France station manager were aware that radio contact with Captain Bacos had been lost. The news was passed on to the Prime Minister, the Minister of Transport and the Defense Minister all of whom were at the regular Sunday Cabinet session.
At 13:27 , IDF Operations Branch put into motion the pre-planned procedures for coping with possible emergencies at Ben Gurion Airport. IDF Central Command promptly moved to establish a command post at the airport, and to alert the necessary army units.
Shortly after 14:00 hours, Air France 139 radioed Benghazi control tower, in Libya, demanding to have fuel available for at least four hours onward flight, and requesting that the local Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine representative be summoned to the airport.
The immediate destination was now clear, but everything indicated the the plane would be traveling on – and Ben Gurion Airport was a possibility. At 14:58, the airliner touched down in Benghazi and was directed to a remote runway. Nobody was allowed off the plane with the exception of one young woman who succeeded in convincing both the terrorists, and a hastily summoned Libyan doctor, that she was pregnant and in danger of miscarrying. The woman, who was in fact on her way to her mother’s funeral in Manchester, England, spent an anxious few hours in the airport terminal, and was then put on a plane to England.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Rabin passed a note to the Cabinet Secretary to convene, in his office after the Cabinet session, a small team of ministers: Defense Minister Peres, Foreign Minister Allon, Transport Minister Yaakobi, Justice Minister Zadok and Minister without portfolio Galilee. Whichever way the Air France 139 episode would develop, these were the men who would have to take the decisions. The meeting, which convened at 16:05, decided very quickly on a number of immediate measures. Yigal Allon was to contact his French counterpart and demand that the French government do everything in its power to obtain the release of the passengers; 139 was after all an Air France plane. Gad Yaakobi would approach the international civil aviation authorities with a similar request, and would establish liaison with the families of the hostages and the communications media. All the arms of Israeli security would take all the necessary steps in the eventuality that the plane was destined for Israel.
After a long wait on the deserted runway at Benghazi, the Airbus, having taken on 42 tons of fuel, started its engines, gathered speed and, at 21:50 on the evening of June 27, was airborne.
At Ben Gurion Airport, where it was now known that 77 Israeli nationals were on board the plane, IDF Chief-of-Staff Mordechai (“Motta”) Gur phoned Shimon Peres, who decided to come to the airport himself. It was slowly becoming clear that the aircraft, with its range of 2500 miles, was heading away from the Middle East in a southerly direction. Nevertheless, all the security preparations were kept in force.
With only a few minutes fuel left in its tanks, Air France 139 landed at Entebbe, in Uganda, at 03:15 local time on the morning of June 28. The units at Ben Gurion Airport were ordered back to their bases, and the command post disbanded. Whatever would happen from here on, it would not require elaborate preparations at Ben Gurion Airport.
Monday, June 28
Monday June 28, was a day of questions – but no answers! Was Entebbe the final destination, or only a refueling station in the onward flight of Air France 139? Were the Ugandans unwilling hosts or active partners in the hijacking? Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator, had not been exactly friendly to Israel since March, 1972, when he had been refused a squadron of Phantom jets with which to bomb Kenya and Tanzania, and had countered by expelling all Israelis from his country.
On the ground in Entebbe, the situation was clearer. At daybreak, the hostages had been able to see, through the windows of the plane, several additional terrorists, as well as Ugandan soldiers massing on the lawn alongside the runway. Idi Amin had put in a personal appearance during the morning, arousing a brief optimism on board the Airbus. But, at midday the hostages had been transferred to the Old Terminal building through a cordon of Ugandan soldiers, whose weapons were pointing ominously at them. Later in the afternoon, Amin had paid a visit and made a speech in support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Despite the uncertainties, some steps were taken in Israel. The French Government had been contacted, and had accepted responsibility for the safety of the passengers, and for the diplomatic efforts that would be made to obtain their release. Transport Minister Yaacobi persuaded the press and the electronic media not to publish lists of names; the chance existed, however slim, that some of the Israeli hostages might be mistaken for citizens of other countries. The Military Censor was roped in to delete any inadvertent hints that could help the hijackers.
Defense Minister Peres told his assistants, in an afternoon session, that if Amin was helping the hijackers, this would be a dangerous precedent; so far, no aircraft hijacking had enjoyed the overt assistance of any president, army or state. If this was the case, and it did succeed-no aircraft would be safe again in African skies. Therefore, it was vital to know what was the actually happening at Entebbe.
Within the IDF no command decisions were being taken-or were called for. Nevertheless, in the joint air and ground staffs of Combined Operations, questions were beginning to be asked and ideas raised-almost as a matter of routine. There was no problem involved with the range; up to March 1972, Hercules aircraft of the IAF had flown regular flights with supplies for the Israeli mission in Uganda. But the Air Force needed to know – against any eventuality – whether any changes had been made on the runways and other airport installations, and whether any anti- aircraft measures had been taken at the airport or on its approaches. There would also be a need for information about normal practices with runway lights, radar and all other details concerning access to an international airport.
At the end of the day, the biggest question of all remained unanswered: What were the hijackers going to demand in return for the release of their prize?
Tuesday, June 29
At dawn on June 29, the only available new information was a brief description of the hijackers, which had come in from Major General Rehavam Zeevi in London. Zeevi, the Prime Minister’s advisor on terrorism, had been in Europe when the hijacking took place, and was asked to remain there to coordinate contacts with the French government and efforts to obtain any relevant data.
At 08:30, PrimeMinister Rabin met with the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, to bring its members up to date on the hijacking and the decisions taken on the previous day by the ministerial team. Later in the morning, in keeping with his awareness that critical security problems transcend party barriers, Rabin sat in private session with Menahem Begin, the leader of the Likud opposition. At the end of their meeting the Prime Minister offered to keep Begin posted on any developments in the situation.
A meeting of the ministerial team was set for five in the afternoon. In the early afternoon, the Prime Minister asked that IDF Chief-of-Staff Gur be summoned to take part in the session. A routine exercise was in progress in Sinai, and the call to Gur caught him as he was about to board a helicopter at Dov Airport in north Tel Aviv, on his way to watch the maneuvers in the south. Before ascending the hills to Jerusalem, the C-O-S called Deputy Head of General Staff Branch, Brig. Gen. Avigdor Ben-Gal, and told him to “start thinking about plans for Entebbe…” The Air Force and Combined Operations Officers, who had been “thinking” since the day before, were now free to move into higher gear.
The Prime Minister opened the five o’clock meeting with a direct question to Lieutenant-General Gur:“Has the IDF any proposal on how to extricate the hostages?”The General replied that it was too early, but options were being examined. There followed a few moments’ debate on possible tactics, but this was cut short by Shimon Peres, who suggested that this was neither the time nor the place to discuss operational matters before they had been properly examined.
Minutes before the meeting, both the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry received from Paris, a preliminary list of terrorists, held in Israel, France, Germany, Switzerland and Kenya, whose release was being demanded by the hijackers in Entebbe. The Director-General of the Foreign Ministry phoned the list through to the cabinet room. Now the price was clear and now there was hard information on who was responsible. The ministers were given a briefing by the intelligence consultant who was sitting in, on the PFLP and its head, Dr. Wadia Hadad.
The Prime Minister closed the meeting with an announcement of a special government session at eleven the next morning.
Early in the evening, another cable from the Paris embassy was placed on Foreign Minister Allon’s desk. this one contained all the technical details of the exchange of terrorists for hostages, and set a deadline -14:00 hours, Israel time, on Thursday, July 1. If their demands were not met, the terrorists threatened to blow up the plane and its passengers.
At 21:00 hours, a small group of IDF generals sat facing Shimon Peres and Motta Gur, while each in turn outlined his preliminary ideas. Kuti Adam, who henceforward would be coordinator and motive force in planning the operation, spoke briefly of three possible options, then turned to Major General Benny Peled, GOC Air Force, for his evaluation of the logistics involved in getting to Entebbe. Peled whose planning officers had been working on the problem for 36 hours, explained all the problematics, then stated that the necessary force (“1200 men with all their equipment, if you want”) could be flown, nonstop, to target. It was too early for operational decisions, but the Air Force had said, loud and clear, that it could be done.
Unknown to the officers in Tel Aviv, Ugandan soldiers in Entebbe had spent the part of the afternoon cutting an opening from the hostages’ hall in the old terminal through to the next room, and had nailed planks in the shape of a “T” across the opening.
The hostages were encouraged to believe that more space was being made available to alleviate their cramped conditions. But in the late evening, Wilfried Boese, the blond-haired hijacker, appeared and announced that he was going to read a list of names, and that all those mentioned should crawl through the opening into the next room. Despite his assurances that the list had nothing to do with nationality, it was clear that he was naming only Israelis and Jews. The German word “Selektion” was muttered around the room – a reminder of Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz choosing those who would live and those who would die!
During the late evening, and into the night, an Israel Air Force officer was making phone calls to senior Air Force personnel, serving and retired, who had seen duty in Uganda. All received the same message:”Report to the Deputy Chief of Intelligence Branch at one a.m.!” From elsewhere in the General Staff, similar calls were going out to officers who had enjoyed a personal relationship with Idi Amin, to meet in the P.M.’s office at 08:00 hours (their squadron leader, Lt.Col. S., was called out of a wedding party in Haifa to receive his summons); and to ground forces combat officers, whose input was now required by the planning teams.
Wednesday, June 30
Ehud Barak, the Deputy Head of IDF Intelligence Branch, had two meetings scheduled during the early hours of Wednesday, June 30. At 01:00 he met with senior Air Force officers who had spent time in Uganda, to find out everythig they could tell him about Entebbe Airport, other airbases in Uganda, Idi Amin’s air force – and anything else that came to mind. At 04:00 hours, he chaired a meeting of the planners to survey progress. There were ideas, but nothing concrete so far; in fact, both meetings were more concerned with listing the gray areas where information was needed, and with compiling checklist of possible sources. Among the officers now present in the meetings was Muki, a young paratroop major, who had been called in that night; his assignment would be to consider all the possibilities of seizing the Old Terminal and eliminating the terrorists.
The strangest meeting of all to take place during that day was in Shimon Peres’ office, where the Defense Minister was picking the brains of a handful of air force and army officers who were personally acquainted and even friendly with Idi Amin. Slowly but surely, Peres was putting together a psychological profile of the African dictator – including details like Amin’s ambition to be awarded the Nobel prize for Peace, and his mother’s appearance to him in a dream to warn him against ever harming the Jews. As a direct outcome of this session, a retired IDF colonel, Burka Bar-Lev, was led into a nearby room to wait while an international call was placed to Kampala. In the ensuing conversation with Idi Amin, and others that followed over the next few days, Bar-Lev was instructed to play heavily on Amin’s ego and their personal friendship to extract every bit of useful information and gain as much time as possible. Through most of the conversations, Peres listened in on an extension phone, taking note of everything of importance that Amin let slip.
The Government of Israel convened, in full session, at 11:00 hours in the Cabinet Room of the Knesset. The only really new developments to report were the refusals of the governments of France and West Germany to give up terrorists from their prisons. The French had however, quietly intimated that they would follow Israel’s lead. The consensus of the meeting, as summed up by Prime Minister Rabin, was that there was still time to decide; the Cabinet would be summoned again either later in the day or the following morning, a few hours before the ultimatum was scheduled to expire.
At Air Force Headquarters, General Peled and his officers were fitting together the pieces of data to make a full picture. Peled’s most basic concern was not with the logistics of reaching Entebbe, but rather with the possibility that unidentified aircraft might be fired on. he had already concluded that little was to be feared from radar detection on route. Even if the planes did show up on hostile radar screens, it was unlikely that they would be believed to be Israeli aircraft so far from home.
At Entebbe, 47 hostages of the non-Israeli group were being herded on board awaiting an Air France plane. Captain Bacos and his crew from flight 139 refused to leave. They were adamant about staying with their passengers to the very end. A French nun also insisted on staying and giving up her place to someone else, but the Ugandans took no notice of her protests, and she was shoved on board the plane.
During the afternoon, two officers of the IDF returned to central Israel from the exercises in the south, to find that they were urgently required to report to the General Staff. One of them was Brigadier General Dan Shomron, Chief Paratroop and Infantry Officer, and his summons was to a briefing by Major General Kuti Adam at 15:30 hours. The second officer was Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan (“Yoni”) Netanyahu, and his meeting was with his own deputy, Muki, who wanted to bring his C. O. into the picture. Neither of these men had been aware of frenzied activity taking place within the small inner circle; they were not alone in this – as the requirements of security had even left most of the generals of the IDF General Staff in the dark about the search for the possible military option.
It was a busy evening. At 21:00 hours, Dan Shomron convened a meeting session at his headquarters. Two hours earlier, Prime Minister Rabin met the editors of Israel’s daily press to discuss with them aspects of the terrorist ultimatum and the diplomatic efforts, and to urge restraint in covering the story. From that meeting, Rabin went straight into session with the small ministerial team, again opening the proceedings with a direct question “do we have a military option?” addressed to the Chief of Staff, again receiving a terse “not yet!” After hearing reports from Foreign Minister Allon on the diplomatic scene, Shimon Peres reviewed the ideas already produced in the IDF – but there were still gaps in the available intelligence data. The team would meet again in the morning, before the Cabinet session that would have to decide about the 2 p.m. ultimatum.
At Orly Airport outside Paris, Foreign Minister Jean Sauvagnargues welcomed the 47 hostages from Entebbe in the name of the President of France. A number of men circulated in the crowd, discreetly collecting names and addresses. Late into the night, there would be knocks on the doors of families celebrating the safe homecoming of their kin, and questions would be asked: the number of terrorists, what weapons were they carrying and what were they wearing, how were the hostages housed, how many Ugandans were around the building and how were they behaving? Despite the lateness of the hour and the strangeness of the circumstances, none of the nocturnal visitors were turned away empty-handed.
Meanwhile, in Tel-Aviv, Defense Minister Peres was sitting in his crowded office, listening to Kuti Adam, Benny Peled, Intelligence Branch Chief Shlomo Gazit and their assistants. Three possible plans were taking shape: a parachute drop into Lake Victoria and a quiet landing at Entebbe from rubber boats, a large-scale crossing of the lake from the Kenyan shore – using whatever craft could be rented, borrowed or stolen, and a direct landing at Entebbe, a quick assault and a fast removal of the hostages by air. Both of the first two plans depended on releasing the hostages then relying on either Idi Amin or UN intercession to get them out. They would drop by the wayside over the coming hours, both for military reasons and because the data coming in from Paris would confirm that the Ugandans were active partners in the hijacking. In the meantime, the problem was still insufficient information – and the clock was ticking away the vital minutes to midday on Thursday, July 1.
Thursday, July 1
At the early morning meeting of Intelligence Branch planners, one of the points that came to light was the fact that an Israeli building contractor had built installations at Entebbe, including the Old Terminal. At 08:00 hours when the normal working day was beginning in Tel Aviv, young officers in civilian clothes paid visits to tourist agencies and airline offices to enquire about flight schedules in East Africa. Another small group descended on the headquarters of one of Israel’s biggest building companies in order to “borrow” in strictest confidence their blueprints of Entebbe airport, and, most particularly of the Old Terminal building.
Shimon Peres sat at his desk, reading over the transcript of the previous night’s phone call to Idi Amin, and refreshing his memory about the information that the Ugandan leader, perhaps inadvertently, and let slip to his old friend, Burka Bar-Lev. Peres was convinced, based on his last session with the officers of the General Staff, that there had to be a military option and that it was only a matter of time till all of the pieces fell into place. He was absolutely certain that giving way to terrorist extortion was not the path that a sovereign state should choose. At 07:45, when the ministerial team convened, Peres stressed his convictions, but the clock on the wall – which showed 08:40 as the meeting ended – was against him.
All eighteen ministers in the Cabinet meeting that began at 09:00 hours were very conscious of the limited time remaining. But the issues were too serious to pass without some debate. After hearing the opening round of discussion, Yitzhak Rabin apologized to his colleagues, and departed for a brief session with the members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, at which he read out the proposed text of a government resolution in favor of negotiation for the release of the hostages, and asked the opinions of the men present. He went out of his way to state that the Minister of Defense, and some other Cabinet ministers, were on record as saying that they would vote for negotiation solely as a means of gaining time. After a brief recess, requested by the head of the opposition, in order to allow consultation, the Prime Minister was assured of the committee’s agreement for what he felt he had to do.
Returning to the Cabinet Room, Rabin called for a vote, insisting that each man must vote “yes” or “no”; there could be no avoidance of responsibility by abstention. The vote was unanimous in favor of negotiation, it being recorded in the minutes of the meeting that Shimon Peres, and Shlomo Hillel, the Minister of Police, regarded the decision as a tactic to gain time. Yigal Allon placed an urgent phone call to the Ambassador of France, and asked him to inform the French Foreign Minister immediately. There were ninety minutes to spare to the expiration of the ultimatum.
The answer was not slow in coming. Idi Amin told Burka Bar- Lev that the PFLP would broadcast on Ugandan Radio at two p.m. Israel time. He would say no more than that. The PFLP had extended the ultimatum to 14:00 hours on Sunday, July 4, a fact that Amin had already announced in yet another personal visit to the hostages in the Old Terminal.
The tension of the morning hours and the relief of temporary reprieve in the afternoon made little difference to the IDF. The air and ground forces teams had achieved substantial progress now that the required – and requested – data was pouring in. There was still one major gap in intelligence, – any changes that might have been made to runways, taxi paths and other installations at Entebbe in the four years since the Israel Air Force had last visited Uganda.
However, assurances had been given that every effort was being made to get an up-dated picture; in any case, the ground plans of international airports were not exactly top secret.
At 10:00 hours, while the members of the Government were agonizing over their decision, Chief Paratroop and Infantry officer, Brig. Gen. Dan Shomron, was presenting his preliminary ideas to Major General Adam. At 15:15 hours, a group of senior officers convened in Shimon Peres’ office to listen to the minister’s report on the decision to negotiate. But that was not all. Peres went on to provoke a discussion on the probabilities of success of a military operation – though it must have seemed in conflict with the political situation. Despite the general atmosphere of caution, Benny Peled and Kuti Adam were optimistic. Forty-five minutes later, Major General Adam formally ordered Shomron to flesh out the details of a military operation to rescue the hostages.
At 17:00 hours, Dan Shomron and his team were in joint session with the Air Force planners and, at 18:30, a more detailed conception was presented to Shimon Peres, as a result of which the Defense Minister approved the preparation of operational orders. Dan Shomron was appointed to command the operation on the ground.
Throughout the evening, the circle widened. Lt. Colonel Netanyahu was again summoned from the south by his deputy, to be brought up to date, in a late night session, on the various ideas for an assault on the Old Terminal. They adjourned at 03:00 hours – Yoni Netanyahu to get some sleep, and Muki to draw up the assignments for their men and to list the equipment they would need. The Senior Medical Officer, at the Head of Communications and Electronics Branch were called in to be briefed, then departed to set their own wheels in motion. At Air Force headquarters, lists were being drawn up of pilots and aircrew, some of them reservists, the main criterion being experience in long-range flights over Africa. Brigadier Shomron instructed his headquarters to bring in troops, drawn from three units, to a relatively quiet base in central Israel. The units should be drawn from Yoni Netanyahu’s paratroops, another paratroop unit and the Golani Infantry Brigade. Golani had endured a long tradition of being the unit to which all rejects from other IDF echelons had been sent. In the years preceding the Yom Kippur War, the brigade had demonstrated a remarkable ability to “pull itself up by its own bootstraps” and was now recognized as an elite unit. The choice for the Entebbe operation was yet another recognition of its new status in the IDF. Meanwhile, strict instructions were being issued to maintain communications silence; there was to be no hint in telephone conversations, or among the uninitiated, about what was in the wind.
During the night, Kuti Adam ordered the erection of a full-scale model of the Entebbe Old Terminal, based on the available blueprints and photographs, at the base where Yoni Netanyahu’s men were now assembling; they would exercise on the model, with the help of a Hercules aircraft parked nearby. Almost as an afterthought, the Computer Center was asked to provide a code name for the operation: after rejecting their first offering, Shomron accepted “Operation Thunderball”.
Meanwhile, a second group of 101 non-Israeli hostages had arrived in Paris. There was a double implication: there were fewer hostages to bring out of Entebbe; on the other hand, the knowledge that the terrorists were now holding Israelis and Jews exclusively, had to raise doubts about the sincerity of their negotiations. In any case, they had already intimated, via the Somali Ambassador to Uganda, who was serving as go-between for the French, that they were not interested in negotiation – only in total satisfaction of their demands. One supposition was that the ultimatum had been extended only to save Idi Amin embarrassment at the meeting of the Organization of African Unity scheduled to take place over the weekend.
Friday, July 2
In discussion with the other generals, Chief of Staff Gur was still not convinced that the now rapidly evolving plan was feasible. However, he agreed to with old judgment until some detail were drilled both on the ground and in the air. Thus, as dawn broke on Friday, July 2, all the preparations were being made for an operation that had not yet been approved by the Chief of Staff. Shortly after midnight, Dan Shomron had a brief session with the Prime Minister, but the basis was still “let’s wait and see…”
At 08:00 on Friday, July 2, an “Orders Group” took place for the officers of the units assigned to “Thunderball”. At 08:30, while three Hercules aircraft were landing at the base, to serve as stage props for the rehearsals of the operation, the Air Force team was presenting its detailed planning to General Motta Gur. The pilots were assuming a flight plan that would bring them to Entebbe in a time slot between one commercial airliner taking off and another landing. It was highly unlikely that the control tower would bother to turn off the runway lights for a short period; in any case, Entebbe was, for the next few days, the “duty airport” for emergencies over East Africa. However, the Chief of Staff was concerned about the dangers of landing in the dark, so it was agreed that he should fly with Lt. Col. S., the command pilot, in a night exercise, to prove that a Hercules could be landed safely without runway lights. For the time being, the assumption was that the aircraft would be refueled at Entebbe, from the airport’s own tanks – though Nairobi, in Kenya was suggested as a possible alternative.
At 10:00 hours, Yoni Netanyahu, Muki and their officers started to run through all the possible variants of an assault on the Old Terminal, while the other units mapped out their roles in securing the rest of the airport, including the New Terminal, and control tower, and the refueling area.
Elsewhere, Air Force ground crews were hard at work on “routine maintenance plus” of seven aircraft: four Hercules would be needed (there had been a suggestion to take many more – but Muki had argued vigorously and effectively against too large a force); one extra Hercules would be held in reserve; two Boeing 707’s were included in the plan – though they would not be landing at Entebbe. Brigadier Dan Michael’s staff in the IDF Medical Corps were assembling the equipment that would be needed to convert one Boeing into a flying medical facility. While Brigadier Yisrael Zamir, the Chief Communications Officer, was working with his team on equipping the other as a communications link.
At 12:00 noon, the unit commanders presented their detailed plans for approval by Chief Paratroop and Infantry officer Shomron. Two hours later, Yoni Netanyahu convened his own officers for a final “Orders Group” before the rehearsals on the model. There was some concern over how to achieve maximal surprise: the assault team would have to cover quite a distance by road to the Old Terminal, since taxing the aircraft too close to the building was bound to alert the terrorists and the Ugandans. Muki suddenly had a brainwave. He grabbed a phone and told a startled staff officer in Tel Aviv that they must have a Mercedes limousine immediately. Putting down the receiver, he explained that all senior Ugandan officers, including Amin himself, always traveled by black Mercedes. A limousine, escorted by Landrovers, would be a normal enough sight not to arouse undue interest until it was too late.
As the light was fading, at 17:00 hours, the assigned aircrews gathered for a briefing on the drills that were to take place after dark. Immediately after the briefing, Lt. Col. S. settled down at the controls of Hercules, with Lt. Gen. Gur and Maj. Gen. Peled at his shoulder. Motta Gur had already told the pilots that it made no difference to the combat teams where they had to perform; it was the pilots’ job to bring them safely to their destination. Lt. Col. S. now had to convince Motta that the pilots could indeed make a blind landing – if they needed to. The plane took off and flew south to Ophir, at the southern tip of Sinai. There , it made a landing on a dark runway, but once was not enough for the COS, so Lt. Col. S. took off again and repeated the maneuver. Coming into Ophir airfield, the plane was a hundred yards off line, but there was ample time to correct – and the landing was again satisfactory. The Air Force had made its point.
Meanwhile, Yoni’s paratroops were exercising, time and again, the drive to the model and the assault and elimination of the terrorists, while their CO held a stopwatch, urging them to clip more seconds until he was satisfied. A Mercedes limousine had indeed arrived, borrowed from a car dealer who specialized in used taxicabs, but no – to Muki’s horror – it was white! Never mind! That problem could be dealt with later.
At 22:45 hours, after Lt. Col. S. had brought his load of top brass back from Ophir, the paratroops performed once again. this time with the Hercules, and with the Chief-of-Staff watching.
Saturday, July 3
At 01:00, on the early morning of Saturday, July 3, Motta Gur phoned Shimon Peres and reported that the men were ready – and the operation could be staged. The news throughout the day had not been promissing: the Embassy in Paris was relaying messages that indicated no progress, and no obvious desire for progress, on the diplomatic front. Now there was at least a ray of light.
Throughout the night, army mechanics labored on the engine of the aging Mercedes. As they finished, two soldiers began to slap black paint on the white bodywork. Yoni and Muki spent the remaining hours of darkness reviewing every aspect of the assault and devising answers eventualities. Air Force headquarters drafted detailed operational orders and, at 05:00, issued them to the transport squadron. Briefing of the aircrews was set for 08:45 hours. Shortly after dawn, the combat units loaded their equipment, and drove on deserted road to a nearby airbase, where ground crews stood ready to lash their vehicles securely in the bellies of the waiting aircraft. Alongside a runway, Dan Michaeli’s doctors and medical orderlies made a last check of the equipment to be loaded on board the “hospital” Boeing. The IDF Medical Corps had quietly called in reservist doctors, with no explanations offered for the unusual summons.
It was a sunny morning in Israel, the plight of the Entebbe hostages overshadowed the normal Sabbath joys. There were no indications of progress in the negotiations for their release, and indeed it seemed that terrorists were only interested in inforcing Israel to its knees in a humiliating capitulation. Via France, Israel had insisted that the exchange must take place at a neutral venue, preferably Paris, but the answer had been an outright refusal. There was little certainty in anybody’s mind that trading convicted terrorists would save the lives of 105 men, women and children in the Entebbe Old Terminal.
Shortly after 11:00, the small ministerial team convened, for the last time, in the Prime Minister’s Tel Aviv office. They listened in silence to General Gur’s detailed presentation of Operation Thunderball. It was not a total surprise, since Shimon Peres had already told three of the ministers that a military option had opened up. Perhaps to retain a sense of the gravity of the situation, Yitzhak Rabin reviewed the risks involved and the implications of failure. The meeting concluded with a question to Motta Gur: “When do the planes have to go”. The answer was:”Shortly after 1 p.m. from central Israel.”
Most of the ministers who gathered for the full Cabinet session, immediately after the team meeting, were expecting the agenda to contain just one item: a decision to accede to the hijackers’ demands before tomorrow’s deadline. Despite the holiness of the Sabbath, all the Cabinet members were present; one religious minister who lived in Jerusalem had received a hint from his colleague, Transport Minister Yaakobi – at midday on Friday – that he would not regret taking his family to Tel Aviv for the weekend.
The gloomy atmosphere and long faces gave way to growing astonishment as the Chief-of-Staff spread maps, sketches and photographs across the table, and began yet another detailed briefing. While General Gur was speaking, the heavy doors of five Hercules aircraft slammed shut, and the planes began to gather speed on the runway. At 13:20, they were airborne and southbound for Ophir at the tip of the Sinai peninsula. The flight plan envisaged a last staging point as far south as possible, for reasons of both timing and range. But normal flight paths would have taken the aircraft westward over crowded Tel Aviv beaches, before making the turn south. And there was no way that so many aircraft in the Sabbath skies could have passed overhead without arousing speculation. So each of the five planes took a separate route across the heartland of Israel. Over the Negev and Sinai deserts, the upcurrents of hot air made it a very rough flight. The soldiers on board the transports had been issued airsickness pills, but the turbulence was so bad that they were glad to set foot on solid ground at Ophir.
In the Cabinet Room in Tel Aviv, Motta Gur concluded his briefing and the ministers were asking questions. Time was now short, but no attempt was made to stop the discussion: the decision was too important to rush the Government of Israel into it. At Ophir, four heavily laden transports (their payloads as much as 20,000 pounds over normal rated capacity) lumbered through the thin desert air and, after using up the whole length of the runway, were airborne. Watching them go were a very airsick paratrooper – and a very frustrated pilot of the reserve Hercules. The prevailing winds and weather forced the four planes to take off northwards, then bank slowly – five degrees at time – back to their southerly course, making part of their turn over the empty desert wastes of Saudi Arabia.
A note passed across the table from Yitzhak Rabin to Shimon Peres suggesting that the planes should go: they could always be recalled. From Peres’ smile, the Prime minister could understand that “Operation Thunderball” was already on its way. As if they had all the time in the world, Rabin summed up the debate, then called for a vote. It was unanimous: the IDF was going to Entebbe.
Fifteen minutes after the last Hercules was airborne out of Ophir, the second Boeing was on its way south from an airbase in central Israel. It would also land at Ophir, then follow the transports – three hours behind to allow for its higher speed. On board were Major General Kuti Adam, another senior officer, and a team of communications operators.
In the cockpits of the four transport planes, which were now flying low over the Gulf of Suez, beneath the height of hostile radar surveillance, the pilots were studying a batch of aerial photographs of Entebbe Airport. taken by an amateur, at an angle, from Kenyan airspace over Lake Victoria, and shoved into the pilots’ hands seconds before takeoff. They held the answers to the remaining questions. In the bellies of the aircraft, the soldiers of the assault teams, and the doctors and corpsmen who were to land with them, sprawled alongside their vehicles getting whatever sleep they could. Some of the officers were studying their maps and orders again, making sure that everything was committed to memory.
Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres went home for a few hours to try and relax before the long night ahead. Peres was expecting dinner guests, and there was no way to postpone without arousing speculation. Rabin had spent the last few minutes before leaving his office on the phone to France, doing his best to invent plausible reasons for delaying the negotiations, yet unable to tell General Zeevi in Paris what was actually happening.
Around the dinner table in Peres’ home, the talk quite naturally turned to the plight of the hostages in Entebbe. In the hope of keeping up pretenses before his American VIP guest of honor, the Minister of Defense turned to another of his guests, the publisher of a Tel Aviv daily who was known for his dovish attitudes, and asked him what he would do under the circumstances. Fully expecting an ardent plea for unconditional capitulation to the terrorists’ demands, Shimon Peres was astonished by the publishers answer: “Send the IDF!” Fortunately, General Gazit, the head of the Intelligence Branch, was able to help his host explain just how impossible that idea was.
Motta Gur, who was spending every available hour with his family-his wife’s father had died earlier in the week-returned to his headquarters to chair a meeting of the General Staff. The generals, like the cabinet ministers that same morning, were convinced that they had been summoned to hear details of an exchange of convicted terrorists for hostages, and were surprised at the at the conspicuous absence of Kuti Adam until Gur began to speak!
Turning westward, the four Hercules headed into the African continent over Ethiopia. The weather was stormy, forcing the pilots to divert northwards close to the Sudanese frontier. However, there were no fears of detection. Firstly, it was doubtful that any alert radar operators would be able to identify the planes as Israeli and secondly, the storm would wreak havoc with incoming signals on the screens. On the approaches to Lake Victoria, they hit storm clouds towering in a solid mass from ground level to 40,000 feet. There was no time to go around, and no way to go above-so they ploughed on through. Conditions were so bad that the cockpit windows were blue with the flashes of static electricity.
Lt.Col. S. held the lead plane straight on course; his cargo of 86 officers and men and Dan Shomron’s forward command post with their vehicles and equipment had to be on the ground according to a precise timetable. The other pilots had no choice but to circle inside the storm for a few extra minutes.
Yitzhak Rabin and some of the other ministers joined Shimon Peres in his office, and waited tensely for a sign of life from the radio link-up on his desk. Shortly before 23:00 hours, they heard a terse “over ‘Jordan'” from Kuti Adam, confirming that the planes had reached Lake Victoria.
Lt. Col. S. held course southward, then banked sharply to line up on Entebbe main runway from the southwest. In the distance he could see that the runway lights were on. Behind him in the cargo compartment, Yoni Netanyahu’s men were piling into the Mercedes and the two Landrovers. The car engines were already running, and members of the aircrew were standing by to release the restraining cables. At 23:01, only 30 seconds behind the preplanned schedule, Lt. Col.S. brought the aircraft in to touch down at Entebbe. The rear ramp of the plane was already open, and the vehicles were on the ground and moving away before the Hercules rolled to a stop. A handful of paratroopers had already dropped off the plane to place emergency beacons next to the runway lights, in case the control tower shot them down. Lt. Col. S. switches on his radio for a second:”I am on ‘Shoshana’.”
The Mercedes, and its escorts, moved down the connecting road to Old Terminal as fast as they could, consistent with the appearance of a senior officer’s entourage. On the approaches to the tarmac apron in front of the building, two Ugandan sentries faced the oncoming vehicles, aimed their carbines, and shouted an order to stop. There was no choice, and no time to argue. The first shots from the Mercedes were from pistols. One Ugandan fell and the other ran in the direction of the old control tower. The Ugandan on the ground was groping for his carbine. A paratrooper responded immediately with a burst. Muki and his team jumped from the car and ran the last 40 yards to the walkway in front of the building. The first entrance had been blocked off; without a second’s pause, the paratroopers raced on to the second door.
After a searching debate with Yoni, Muki had decided to break a cardinal rule of the IDF. Junior officers usually lead the first wave of an assault, but Muki felt it important to be up front in case there was need to make decisions about changes in plans. Tearing along the walkway, he was fired on by a Ugandan. Muki responded, killing him. A terrorist stepped out the main door of the Old Terminal to see what the fuss was about, and rapidly returned the way he had come.
Muki then discovered that the magazine of his carbine was empty. The normal procedure would have been to step aside and let someone else take the lead. He decided against, and groped to change magazines on the run. The young officer behind him, realizing what was happening, came up alongside. The two of them, and one other trooper, reached the doorway together – Amnon, the young lieutenant, on the left, Muki in the center and the trooper on the right. The terrorist who had ventured out was now standing to the left of the door. Amnon fired, followed by Muki. Across the room, a terrorist rose to his feet and fired at the hostages sprawled around him, most of whom had been trying to sleep. Muki took care of him with two shots. Over to the right, a fourth member of the hijackers’ team managed to loose off a burst at the intruders, but his bullets were high, hitting a window and showering glass into the room. The trooper aimed and fired. Meanwhile, Amnon identified the girl terrorist to the left of the doorway and fired. In the background, a bullhorn was booming in Hebrew and English: “This is the IDF! Stay down!” From a nearby mattress, a young man launched himself at the trio in the doorway, and was cut down by a carbine burst. The man was a bewildered hostage. Muki’s troopers fanned out through the room and into the corridor to the washroom beyond – but all resistance was over.
The second assault team had meanwhile raced through another doorway into a hall where the off- duty terrorist spent their spare time.Two men in civilian clothes walked calmly towards them. Assuming that these could be hostages, the soldiers held their fire. Suddenly one of the men raised his hand and threw a grenade. The troopers dropped to the ground. A machine-gun burst eliminated their adversaries. The grenade exploded harmlessly. Yoni’s third team from the Landrovers moved to silence any opposition from the Ugandan soldiers stationed near the windows on the floor above. On the way up the stairs, they met two soldiers, one of whom was fast on the trigger. The troopers killed them.
While his men circulated through the hall, calming the shocked hostages and tending the wounded, Muki was called out to the tarmac. There he found a doctor kneeling over Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu. Yoni had remained outside the building to supervise all three assault teams. A bullet from the top of the old control tower had hit him in the back. While the troopers silenced the fire from above, Yoni was dragged into the shelter of the overhanging wall by the walkway.
The assault on Old Terminal was completed within three minutes after the lead plane landed. Now in rapid succession, its three companions came into touch down at Entebbe. By 23:08 hours, all of Thunderball Force was on the ground. The runway lights shut down as the third plane came in to land, but it didn’t matter, but it didn’t matter – the beacons did the job well enough. With clockwork precision, armored personnel carriers roared off the ramp of the second transport to take up position to the front and rear of Old Terminal, while infantrymen from the first and third plane ran to secure all access to roads to the airport and to take over New Terminal and the control tower; the tower was vital for safe evacuation of the hostages and their rescuers. In a brief clash at the New Terminal, Sergeant Hershko Surin, who was due for demobilization from the army in twelve hours time fell wounded. The fourth plane taxied to a holding position near Old Terminal, ready to take on hostages. All the engines were left running. A team of Air Force technicians were already hard at work offloading heavy fuel pumps – hastily acquired by an inspired quartermaster one day earlier – and setting up to transfer Idi Amin’s precious aviation fluid into the thirsty tanks of the lead transport – a process that would take well over an hour.
In Peres’ crowded room in Tel Aviv, Kuti Adam’s terse “Everything’s okay” only served to heighten the tension. Motta Gur decided to contact Dan Shomron directly, but was little more enlightened by laconic “It’s alright – I’m busy right now!”
The Medical Corps’ Boeing had landed at Nairobi, in Kenya, at 22:25. General Peled was now able to tell Lt. Col. S. that it was possible to refuel at Nairobi. Unable momentarily, to raise Shomron on the operational radio, and uncomfortable with the situation on the ground – the Ugandans were firing tracers at random, while the aircraft with engines running were vulnerable at the fuel tanks – Lt. Col. S. decided to take up the option now available.
Muki radioed Dan Shomron to report that the building and surroundings were secure – and to inform him that Yoni had been hit. Though they were ahead of schedule, there was no point in waiting (possibly allowing the Ugandans to bring up reinforcements), particularly since Shomron now knew that refueling the aircraft in Nairobi was possible. The fourth Hercules was ordered to move up closer to Old Terminal. Muki’s men and the other soldiers around the building formed two lines from the doorway to the ramp of the plane; no chances would be taken that a bewildered hostage could wander off into the night – or blunder into the aircraft’s engines. As the hostages straggled out, heads of families were stopped at the ramp and asked to check that all their kin were present. Captain Bacos was quietly requested to performed the same task for his “family”- the crew of Air France139. Behind them, Old Terminal was empty but for the bodies of six terrorists, among them a young European girl and a blond-haired German called Wilfried Boese.
It took seven minutes to load the precious cargo of humanity, while a pick-up truck – brought 2,200 miles specially for this purpose – ferried out the dead and wounded, including Yoni. The paratroops made a last check of the building, then signalled the aircrew to close up and go. At 23:52 hours, the craft was airborne and on its way to Nairobi, while doctors worked over seven wounded hostages, and the aircrew distributed sheets of aluminium foil to make up for an inadequate supply of blankets. It was cold, and the were exhausted and still in shock at the rapid change in their fortunes – and dimly aware that two of their number were dead, and that they were leaving behind an old lady, Mrs. Dora Bloch. She had been taken to a hospital in Kampala where she was subsequently murdered on Amin’s orders.
At the other end of the airfield, an infantry team fired machinegun bursts into seven Ugandan Air Force Migs. The decision to destroy the planes had just been relayed from Kuti Adams Boeing. There was no point in tempting Ugandan pilots into pursuit.
Sunday, July 4
The paratroops reloaded their vehicles and equipment. Their job done, they were airborne at 00:12. Behind them, their comarades completed their tasks and checked that nothing was left behind – except the fuel pumps which were too much trouble to manhandle back on board a Hercules. The intention had been to leave the pick-up truck as a present for Idi Amin, but a soldier convinced one of the pilots too load that too. At 00:40, the last of Thunderball Force left Entebbe. Thirty minutes later, the second Boeinig and the first Hercules landed at Nairobi, and taxied to the fuel tanks in a quiet corner of the airport.
Though the pilots could not know it, Prime Minister Rabin had made a decision, on Friday morning, not to inform the Government of Kenya. Firstly there was security to consider and, secondly, he did not want to embarrass the Kenyans, who had enough troubles of their own with Idi Amin. Without any fuss, fuel tankers moved into position by the planes and began the refueling, while the drivers presented the paperwork to their pilots for signature – just as they would to any commercial flight. No questions were asked and no information volunteered. Sergeant Hershko who was seriously wounded, was transferred to the hospital Boeing. Two hostages whose wounds needed immediate care in a fully equipped hospital, were loaded into a waiting station wagon and taken into Nairobi, where one of them died. At four minutes past two on Sunday morning, the remaining passengers and aircrew of Air France 139 were airborne on the lastleg of their long journey home.
Long after midnight, the Spokesman of the Defense Ministry made a phone call to a sleeping household in Tel Aviv. The relatives of the hostages had elected a committee to pressure the Government, and the committee in turn had chosen a chairman who had met throughout the week with Rabin, Peres, Yaakobi and anyone else who would listen. This time, it was the chairman who was listening – though it took some moments for the news to jolt him awake.
The flight home was long, easy and uneventful – except for one nasty jolt! At 03:00, a Hercules pilot was twiddling the controls hoping for some music, when he heard the Israel Army Network announce:”IDF forces tonight rescued…” Why would they announce it before the planes reached home? He could not know that the Agence France Presse in Kampala had filed a wire story of shots heard in Entebbe, and it was already a headline on Paris radio and the BBC.
There was no mood of celebration on the transports. The hostages, huddled together against the cold, and aware now that their rescue had cost the life of a soldier, were thankful to be among their own again, but in no mood to join in the singsong that someone halfheartedly tried to start. They still needed time to absorb it all – to shake off the nightmare of Entebbe. In Lt. Col. S.’s plane, the paratroops were sunk in their own private thoughts. Despite all efforts of the doctors,Yoni was dead. The mission was later renamed ”Operation Jonathan” in his memory.
Early in the morning of Sunday, July 4, 1976 – by chance the day that Americans were celebrating their Bicentenial – the lead Hercules flew low over Eilat, at the southern tip of Israel. The tired airmen in the cockpit were astonished to see people in the streets below waving and clapping. The plane landed at an Airforce Base in central Israel. The hostages were fed and given a chance to shake off the trauma. The wounded were taken off to hospital, and psychologists circulated among the others, giving help where it was needed.
In a remote corner of the same airfield, the three combat teams unloaded their vehicles and equipment. They would return to their bases, hardly aware of the excitement in Israel, and throughout the free world, over what they had done this night.
It was a mid-morning when a Hercules transport of the Israel Air Force touched down at Ben Gurion International Airport, rolled to a stop and opened its rear ramp to release its cargo of men, women and children into the the outstretched arms of their relatives and friends and of a crowd of thousands. The ordeal was over.