Raid on Entebbe
By: Major (Res.) Louis Williams
Date: July 3–4, 1976
Source: Israeli Defense Force
About the Author: At the time Major Louis Williams wrote his daily commentary Entebbe Diary, concerning the raid on the Entebbe airport, he was a member of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in the Israeli Army.
On June 27, 1976, ten armed terrorists, masquerading as Latin American tourists, from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)—a Marxist-Leninist group originally from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—and the Baader-Meinhof Gang—a leftist revolutionary group from West Germany—hijacked Air France Flight 139 while in route from Athens, Greece, to Tel Aviv, Israel (also destined for Paris, France). PFLP leader Dr. Wadi Hadad, allegedly supported by Ilich Ramirez-Sanchez (Carlos the Jackal) and Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, planned the terrorist act.
With 246 passengers onboard, they forced the airplane to Entebbe International Airport in southern Uganda, near the northwestern shore of Lake Victoria. The terrorists released the non-Jewish and non-Israeli passengers and then threatened, on June 29th, to kill the remaining Jewish and Israeli hostages if fifty-three of their Palestinian comrades in Israeli, French, German, Swiss, and Kenyan jails were not released by July 1st.
At this time, with the realization that the other countries were not going to release their incarcerated Palestinians and with a three day extension given by the terrorists, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin secretly authorized the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to plan a rescue mission for the hostages—a raid on Entebbe—under the name Operation Thunderbolt (later renamed Operation Yonatan); while at the same time publicly negotiating with the terrorists.
The IDF decided to fly four C-130 Hercules transport/cargo planes—one carrying about 200 IDF and Special Forces commandos and supplies; a second carrying Brigadier General Dan Shomron, a black Mercedes-Benz, and two Land Rovers, to resemble a high-ranking governmental Uganda caravan; a third with a demolition team to restrain Uganda's Russian-built MiG fighter jets; and a fourth carrying fuel for the others—to the Entebbe airport.
The assault began on July 4, 1976, when the IDF commandos killed the German terrorists and several Ugandan soldiers outside the Old Terminal's transit hall. Locating the hostages inside, the Israeli soldiers then killed the PFLP terrorists in a quick but deadly fight that lasted less than three minutes. Within an hour after the first airplane landed at the Entebbe airport, 103 surviving hostages were free and flying back to Tel Aviv. Three hostages were killed, along with Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan "Yoni" Netanyahu, the leader of the IDF Special Forces team.
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 Land Rovers. 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.
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 terrorists 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—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 the 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 the 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!"
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 perform the same task for his "family"—the crew of Air France 139. 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 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 outstretched arms of their relatives and friends and of a crowd of thousands. The ordeal was over.
The raid on Entebbe to rescue hostages taken by international terrorists was highly significant to the counterterrorism activities of the United States, Israel, and other allies. The raid clearly brought to light the dangers inherent with global terrorism. The 1976 experience showed the world that when peaceful negotiations were unsuccessful, aggressive actions to rescue hostages could be quickly planned and successfully carried out with a minimum loss of life. Still today, the stunning raid on Entebbe is considered one of the most daring and successful raids in the recent history of the modern world.
Idi Amin was publicly embarrassed around the world by the surprise raid on Entebbe. When a government representative of Uganda condemned the Israeli raid in front of the United Nations (UN) Security Council as a violation of Ugandan independence, the Security Council rejected the criticism. From this point forward, Amin's military regime, which was widely known for carrying out human rights violations, began to crumble. Within two years he was forced into political exile in Saudi Arabia.
Of great political significance, Israel did not succumb to terrorist blackmail, but forcibly took matters into its own hands to free its citizens. At the time of the incident, the rescue symbolized to the world that Israel was willing and able to defend and protect its Jewish citizens from violence, regardless of the consequences, caused by terrorist acts. For the next several years the successful raid caused a great upsurge of pride for the people of Israel. Many of the Israeli soldiers that participated in the raid were later promoted to high-ranking positions in the military and political systems of Israel.
Ultimately, the members of the Security Council established an important precedent in international law when they enacted the principle of national self defense or the right of a country to protect itself and its citizens against violence or threatened violence with whatever force or means are reasonably necessary.
Hastings, Max. Yoni, Hero of Entebbe. New York: Dial Press, 1979.
Netanyahu, Jonathan. Self-Portrait of a Hero: From the Letters of Johathan Netanyahu, 1963-1976. New York: Random House, 1980.
Ofer, Yehuda. Operation Thunder: The Entebbe Raid: The Israelis Own Story. Hamondsworth, Middlesex, U.K. and New York: Penguin, 1976.
Stevenson, William. 90 Minutes at Entebbe. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
Williams, Louis. Israeli Defense Force: A People's Army. Jerusalem and New York: Gefen Publishing House, 1996.
BBC News. "1976: British Grandmother Missing in Uganda." <http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/july/7/newsid_2496000/2496095.stm> (accessed June 16, 2005).