Operation Entebbe: Incredible Hostage-Rescue Mission Of Hijacked Airplane

When an airbus was hijacked on July 4th 1976, Operation Entebbe was put into place resulting in one of the most stunning hostage rescue missions of all time.
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The date is June 27th, 1976 and an Air France Airbus is taking off from Athens, Greece, en route to Paris. Aboard the flight are 248 passengers, most of them Israelis, along with 12 aircrew. Amongst the passengers, however, are two Palestinian and two German terrorists, and shortly after takeoff, the three men and one woman reveal concealed weapons and threaten to murder passengers if the flight is not immediately diverted.

The aircrew radios their situation to ground authorities and changes heading for Benghazi, Libya where the plane lands and is refueled. Seven hours later the plane departs and finally lands in Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

Outside the plane’s windows, the hostages see scores of Ugandan troops and are briefly relieved, believing themselves about to be rescued. Yet as the plane’s doors open up a Ugandan army colonel strides up the emergency stairs and shakes hands with one of the terrorists- the Ugandans are not here to liberate the hostages, they are here to protect the terrorists.

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Soon after, one of the hijackers contacts international media with their demands: they want a ransom of $5 million for the release of the airplane along with the release of 53 Palestinian and Pro-Palestinian militants from prisons around the world. If their demands are not met they will begin executing hostages on July 1st.

Israel is requesting help and cooperation from other governments

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Back in Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin phones US President Gerald Ford, asking him to contact the Egyptian government and request their aid in negotiating with Ugandan President Idi Amim. Egypt, not particularly friendly to the Israeli situation, promises to do what it can.

Meanwhile the Israeli cabinet furiously argues back and forth on whether they should give in to the terrorist demands or not, and prepares to release the forty Palestinian prisoners that they are holding.

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The US and Britain however are adamant that they will not negotiate with terrorists, and inform Israel that they will under no circumstances release any of their prisoners. The American and British stance is a harsh one, but a logical one- if these terrorists and their demands are surrendered, then it will only encourage further terrorism.

Meanwhile, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat attempts to negotiate with Amim, but makes no headway. He then turns to the Palestinian Liberation Organization and surprisingly gets Yasser Arafat to send his political aide to Uganda to negotiate with the hostage takers, though the hijackers refuse to see him.

A political situation is quickly becoming untenable

The Israeli government asks the hijackers for another week in order to buy themselves more time. President Amim, who has been in contact with an Israeli Defense Force officer whom he had a long personal history with, agrees to negotiate with the terrorists after he is told that Israel is preparing to release their prisoners.

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The hijackers released 48 non-Israeli hostages on the 30th of June, and after agreeing to a deadline extension, released another 100 non-Israelis, all of which are flown to Paris. This leaves 84 Israeli hostages, 10 french hostages, and the aircrew of 12 who had refused to leave with the earlier released hostages.

With their extra time, the Israeli government breaks into furious discussions on how to proceed, with many wanting to agree with the hijacker’s demands in order to gain a release of the rest of the hostages- yet others, mostly those from the intelligence and military community, refute the idea, warning that this will only encourage further terrorism.

With pressure mounting and the US, Britain, and now France adamant that they will not negotiate with terrorists, a final decision is made: there will be no negotiation. Instead, the Israeli Defense Forces will mount a rescue, leading to one of the most incredible military operations in history.

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Forming a plan to rescue the hostages

With only a week left before the noon deadline of July 4th set by the hijackers, IDF commanders convene an emergency meeting to determine a strategy for the rescue. One idea is to have naval commandos air-dropped into Lake Victoria, which borders the Entebbe International Airport where the hostages are kept.

Dropped into the lake, the commandos would inflate rubber boats and ride them to the airport, where they would engage and kill the hijackers, and then hold their position and ask President Amim for safe passage home.

The plan is almost immediately shot down, for one, the Israelis are told that the lake is infested with Nile crocodiles, and there are serious concerns about Ugandan President Amim’s support for any rescue operation. Rather than allow the rescuers to fly home, he might order an attack on the Israeli forces instead which would lead to a slaughter.

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The Israelis have two major problems to overcome

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In devising a realistic rescue attempt, they have two major problems to overcome: first, they need more solid intelligence on the airport and its layout, and secondly, they must get the assistance of an East African nation for the raid, as the Israeli military lacks the capability to refuel four to six military aircraft so far away from Israeli airspace.

The Americans have a huge airborne refueling fleet, but in order to get their tankers on station to support the Israelis, they too would need the permission of several African nations to fly through their airspace, and such a plan risks tipping off Amim to a pending rescue attempt.

Instead, the Jewish owner of a hotel chain in Kenya, along with other prominent members of the Jewish and Israeli community in that nation, all pressured Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta to support the IDF raid, thus securing Kenyan permission for the IDF task force to cross into their airspace and refuel at what is today Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

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Further, Kenyan Minister of Agriculture Bruce MacKenzie persuades President Kenyatta to allow Mossad agents into the nation so they can collect information across the border in Uganda on the Entebbe airport. Within 24-hours, Israeli Mossad agents have crossed the border into Uganda en route to scout out the airport and its defenses.

Other Mossad agents meanwhile have flown to Paris, where they are conducting interviews with the released hostages. One of them, a French-Jewish passenger with a military background, has an extraordinary memory and is able to provide information not just on the airport, but on the hijackers and the number and types of weapons they carry.

Information gathered is sent back to the IDF to form another plan

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All this information is relayed back to the IDF, who have also contacted the Israeli construction company which had actually built the exact terminal where the hostages were being kept years ago. Building a miniature replica of the terminal, the Israelis begin to piece together where the hostages may be being kept and prepare their strike force.

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The plan is risky, but simple- four C-130s would take off from Israel and head to Uganda with a strike force of 100 commandos who would assault the airport terminal, secure the airport against any Ugandan military forces responding to the attack while the planes refueled, and then fly everyone home. The men are split into three elements:

Ground Command And Control consists of a small group including the ground commander, Brigadier General Dan Shomron and support and communications personnel.

The Assault element consists of a 29 man assault force led by Lt. Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu and made up entirely of commandos from the elite Sayeret Matkal unit. They will be the spearhead of the assault and are tasked with breaching the terminal and rescuing the hostages.

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The Security element is the largest element, and is made up for three parts. A force of paratroopers will secure the airport field, clear and secure the runways, and protect the aircraft while they are fueling.

The Golani force will secure the C-130 tasked with rescuing the hostages and board them, while also acting as general reserves and reinforcing where needed. The Sayeret Matkal force will clear the military airstrip nearby and destroy a squadron of MIG fighter jets on the ground to prevent any possible interceptions by the Ugandan Air Force.

They will also repel any attack by Ugandan military forces responding from the nearby city of Entebbe. The plan is set and with time nearly running out late in the evening of July 3rd, just hours before the July 4th deadline, the strike force loads into their waiting C-130s.

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The four plane flight takes off and flies over the Red Sea at a height of no more than 100 feet (30 m). From their windows the soldiers can see waves breaking below them as the airplanes roar along at almost four hundred miles an hour.

Nervously the pilots keep an iron grip on their control sticks

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The strike force is flying low and fast to avoid radar detection by the Egyptians, Sudanese, and Saudi Arabians, fearing that if they are detected, the mission may be given away. Plus, there is the added concern that any one of these nations- not currently on friendly terms with Israel- may decide to intercept the flight, the Israelis after all, did not gain permission to penetrate or approach their airspace.

While flying at 30 meters lets the Israelis avoid ground based radar, if any military aircraft happen to be in the sky, they would be very quickly detected by airborne radar, and so far out of range of Israeli jets, there would be no hope of protecting the strike force from hostile attack.

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At such low altitudes, the smallest mistake will send them plummeting into the ocean just a hundred feet below them, disintegrating the massive planes on impact. Trailing behind the strike force’s C-130s are a flight of two Boeing 707s, civilian transports that have been retrofitted with medical facilities and a command post for the commander of the operation, General Yekutiel Adam.

Hours later, the planes have landed at Jomo Kenyatta International airport in Nairobi, Kenya. One of the 707s, the medical support plane, is left behind while the other five planes are refueled and take off for the assault on Entebbe International Airport.

On approach to the airport, the remaining 707 circles overhead, allowing General Adam to remain in contact with his forces on the ground. At 2300 hours, the four C-130s all make a combat landing on the airport’s runway, their cargo bay doors already open and ready to discharge the men inside.

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Using a Trojan horse-like tactic

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Commandos from Sayeret Matkal with the Mercedes they used to deceive the Ugandans, by IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the darkness, though the first plane almost taxis straight into a ditch, but the other three land without incident. From one of the C-130s, a black Mercedes made to look like President Amin’s personal vehicle rolls out, followed by two Land Rovers- all bearing the insignia of the Ugandan president.

Inside each vehicle are Israeli commandos, hoping to be able to roll past two known security checkpoints. However, as the vehicles approach, one of the sentries orders the cars to stop- he knows that Amin has recently purchased a white Mercedes and is suspicious.

As the vehicle rolls to a stop, Lt. Colonel Netanyahu orders the commandos inside to shoot the sentries. The commandos fire two shots at the sentries using their silenced pistols and roll away, yet as one of the Land Rovers approaches, they realize the sentries are still alive. Orders are clear: there can be no sentries left alive who may raise the alarm. The last land rover pulls to a halt and an Israeli commando hops out, killing the two sentries.

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Upon hearing the gunshot from the commando’s unsilenced rifle, the assault force fears that they’ve been given away, and the vehicles roar to the airport terminal at high speed. Meanwhile, armored personnel carriers are being hurriedly unloaded from the other C-130 planes.

Operation Entebbe started

One force of armored vehicles hurries to the main entrance to the airport to set up a defensive position should Ugandan military forces respond from the city. The other immediately roars to the adjacent military airfield and begins to rake the eleven Ugandan Migs with cannon fire.

Ugandan pilots rush out from their barracks in a panic, but upon seeing their planes being destroyed by heavy cannon fire, flee from the airfield. In moments all that remains of the Migs are smoking wrecks riddled with heavy caliber machine gun fire.

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On the flight line the security element has fanned out around the C-130s as the planes begin to refuel from on-board fuel tanks. The mood is tense and suddenly, gunfire is heard from the direction of the airport control tower as the Golani force comes under fire from Ugandan army forces. Back inside the terminal, the commandos burst into the building.

One of the soldiers uses a bullhorn and screams in both English and Hebrew, “Stay down! Stay down! We are Israeli soldiers!” Unfortunately a 19 year old boy stands up in the confusion and is immediately cut down by the commandos, who believes that he is one of the hijackers.

Another hostage is also fatally wounded by the commandos in the confusion, but the rest dive to the floor and keep their heads down. One of the hijackers, the German Willfried Bose, rushes into the hall holding the hostages and brandishes his AK at them, but a moment later seems to have a change of heart. Instead of firing at them, he orders the hostages to seek shelter in the bathroom, then turns and starts firing at the commandos. In moments he is cut down by Israeli gunfire.

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Securing the hostages was successful, but unfortunately not without casualties

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Rescued passengers were welcomed at Ben Gurion Airport, by Government Press Office (Israel), licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One of the commandos asks the hostages where the rest of the hijackers are, and the hostages all point at a door inside the terminal’s main hall. The commandos quickly form an assault team, lining up on either side of the door and tossing in three hand grenades.

As soon as the grenades explode, the commandos burst through the doors to discover the wounded and stunned hijackers, who are immediately shot dead. With the building secure, the commandos rush the hostages to the exit and hurry them along to a waiting C-130.

Outside though, the Golani force is under assault by a platoon of Ugandan soldiers, most of which have holed themselves up in the airport control tower. From their vantage point, the Ugandan soldiers begin to fire down at the hostages as they are being loaded onto their C-130, but the Israeli armored vehicles respond with their automatic cannons.

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Cannon fire blasts the concrete structure, eliminating many of the Ugandans hiding within, but return fire wounds five of the commandos, and kills the assault element’s commander, Lt. Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu. In response, the Israelis fired a rocket propelled grenade into the tower and strafe it with machine-gun fire, effectively silencing any opposition within.

Loading the rest of the hostages and Netanyahu’s body into the planes, the assault force is quickly in the air. The entire operation has lasted only 53 minutes, with the assault itself only lasting 30 minutes. Seven hijackers, 33 to 45 Ugandan soldiers and eleven Ugandan Migs have been lost to the Israeli commandos, and only three hostages have been killed with ten wounded.

In the aftermath of the raid, Israel faced international condemnation from many states

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The C-130s fly to Nairobi and link up with the waiting medical plane, which immediately begins to treat the wounded as it climbs into the sky and heads for home.

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A resolution raised in the UN by Benin, Libya and Tanzania condemning Israel for what it called provocative actions, though it was not put to a vote.

The Ugandan and Israeli representatives were summoned before the UN Security Council after a complaint was filed by the Chairman of the Organization of African Unity charging Israel with an act of aggression.

The Ugandan foreign minister claimed that the hostage situation was nearing a peaceful diplomatic resolution, while the Israeli ambassador charged Uganda with being fully complicit in the hijacking.

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In the end a general resolution condemning international terrorism and calling for stronger civil air security- without condemning Israel’s actions- was raised, but failed to pass in the general assembly. Most western nations would go on to praise the Israeli raid, with representatives of the UK and the USA congratulating Israel on an “impossible operation”.

Uganda’s President Amim however was furious, and threatened direct military action against Kenya for their support of the operation. In response, the US dispatched the supercarrier USS Ranger and her escorts to the Indian Ocean and based it off the Kenyan coast, ready to respond if Uganda followed through with its threats.

He did not take direct military action against Kenya but killed innocent people in retaliation

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Members of the family pay last respects to Dora Bloch, 75, after she was murdered by officers of the Ugandan army, by Government Press Office (Israel), licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Imam did order the murder of one of the hostages who had been left behind, Dora Bloch a 74 year old Israeli woman who had been taken to a hospital after choking on a chicken bone.

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Ugandan military officers showed up at her hospital room and dragged her out of bed before fatally shooting her, along with several Ugandan doctors and nurses who tried to intervene. Amin would also go on to order the killing of hundreds of Kenyans living in Uganda in retaliation, with as many as 245 Kenyans killed by July 11th and 3,000 fleeing the nation as refugees.


Featured image: A 1994 photograph of the old terminal with a U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules parked in front. Bullet holes from the 1976 raid are still visible, by SRA Andy Dunaway, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons