Operation Thunderbolt: Daring and Luck

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This is a look back from a vantage point of time and personal acquaintance with Sayeret Matkal, the IDF elite commando unit and the Mossad, who combined their assets with the Israeli Air Force to rescue 108 Jewish passengers held hostage in Entebbe, Uganda, 3,800 KM from Israel.

Although several feature movies have been produced about what became Operation Jonathan, they failed to convey the paths strewn with coincidences vital to the success of the rescue operation, the gaps in intelligence, and unforeseen events on the ground.

Sayeret Matkal was established in 1957 as a sub-unit of the Human Intelligence collection agency (Humint) of the Israeli Defense Force. I joined its “Founding Father” Major Abraham Arnan, to form teams of commando soldiers who had the look, accent, and fluent Arabic of Syrians and Egyptians. The unit was to follow two models: the Arabic and German platoons of the Jewish crack forces פלמ”ח and the Special Air Service of the British forces in the Western Desert of Africa in World War II. The slogan adopted by the Sayeret was “Hame’ez Menatzeach” – the Hebrew version of the insignia of Special Air Service (SAS) unit of the British Army in WWII – “Who Dares Wins.”

The teams were trained to navigate in the dark, perform subversive activities and technical missions deep inside enemy territory, remaining clandestine by using enemy vehicles and uniforms. As the unit developed, its teams were trained to deal with terrorist incidents, hijackings, and hostage rescues. As the Israeli Air Force integrated helicopters for ferrying troops and engaging in air-ground combat, the teams gained skills for long-range operations. Nevertheless, the IDF had never undertaken missions on other continents.

Why go to Uganda?

When the Air France Airbus was hijacked after takeoff from Athens on June 27, 1976, the Israeli government and intelligence community expected the terrorists would return it to Ben Gurion Airport where they would make their demands while holding the hostages. However, the hijackers, PLO “mercenaries” and experienced terrorists, knew of the past rescue operation of the Sabena passengers by Sayeret Matkal in 1967, so they directed the flight to Libya, where they anticipated the support of Libyan dictator Gadhafi. However, after landing and refueling they were forced to depart immediately. They then redirected their flight to Kampala, where the PLO had a stronghold, supported by Ugandan President Idi Amin.

Dr. Wadia Hadad, head of an extreme terrorist faction of PLO who hired the two German terrorists of the Baader-Meinhof group to lead the hijacking and handle the hostages, had few connections outside the Middle East. But Yasser Arafat, then head of the PLO, had established a friendship with Idi Amin and a strong presence in Kampala. Thus, the Air France plane was welcomed at Entebbe Airport, also a base for the Ugandan Air Force.

Idi Amin Dada, the self-appointed President of Uganda was more than a sympathizer of the Palestinian cause and PLO. He was the first and sole African leader who permitted the Air France airbus to land in his territory. What Dr. Hadad and the Baader-Meinhof team disregarded was the short history of independent Uganda and its past ties with Israel.

Idi Amin’s change of skin

As in other awakening African countries in the early 1960s, Israel’s interest in Uganda was to break through the encirclement of hostile Arab countries, opening a way to a nearby continent, especially East Africa, which controlled the straits leading to the Red Sea and Eilat port. Uganda’s special place in this policy originated from distant memories of the Uganda Plan to settle Jews there in the early twentieth century as well as from its strategic importance as a link in a chain of African countries surrounding hostile Arab ones, mainly Sudan and Egypt.

In the 1960s, joint Israeli-Ugandan activity was also in the latter’s interest.  Obote, the young state of Uganda’s first prime minister, wanted Israeli assistance and expanded military, economic, and financial relations with Israel. This included construction projects building roads and the Entebbe International Airport by the Solel Boneh conglomerate and irrigation projects by Mekorot.

Israeli-Ugandan cooperation in military spheres was publicized in Israel and elsewhere, with Israel’s only larger African military presence in Ethiopia. IDF sent dozens of advisers to train Uganda’s infantry, parachutists, armored corps, and air force. The first of many courses for Ugandan infantry officers concluded in Israel in July 1963. A military attaché was stationed at the Israeli embassy in Kampala. Courses in the intelligence field were held both in Uganda and Israel.

In 1961, when the British hastily established a local Ugandan army officer corps, Amin received his commissioned rank. In 1965 he was sent to Israel for a paratrooper course; although he did not complete it, he received paratrooper wings as “an important officer friendly to Israel.” Israelis gave him the code name Hagai Ne’eman, which means “reliable helmsman,” a Hebrew translation of the Swahili Idi Amin.

On 25 January 1971, Amin staged a military coup in Uganda. His accession brought an increased Israeli military and economic presence along with technical cooperation with Israeli military advisers ranging from fifty to seventy.

Following rejection of various absurd financial, military and political requests, Idi Amin then made an abrupt policy change regarding Israel. He demanded that the Israeli military advisers leave Uganda immediately, repeating his accusations against them on 23 March, 1972. On 27 March, Uganda canceled all its purchases of Israeli military equipment and Amin ordered all Israelis to leave his country. On 30 March, he ordered the Israel embassy closed and severed diplomatic relations with Israel claiming, strangely, that Israel was preparing a “secret army” of 700 to overthrow him. By that time, 470 Israelis were left in Uganda including women and children.  On 8 April, the last Israeli left the country.

During this time Amin raised funds from Saudi Arabia and Libya, and Uganda became an important base for PLO activity against IsraelEarly in 1976, a PLO group of terrorists from Uganda was caught near the airport in Nairobi, Kenya, attempting to shoot down an El-Al plane with shoulder-held missiles.

When the terrorists in Entebbe issued their demands for release of Jewish hostages, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin saw no alternative but to accept their demands to release PLO prisoners held in Israel and to plead with Germany and others to follow suit, releasing imprisoned Red Army and Urban Fraction terrorists.

But Shimon Peres, Minister of Defense; Brigadier General Dan Shomron, Chief of the Paratroopers force; and General Kuti Adam, head of the Operation Wing of IDF HQ, pushed hard for long-range sortie.

Intelligence was scarce. The time-frame was short. Nonetheless, Major Muki Betser of Sayeret Matkal, former military instructor in Uganda and the Reserve CO of Sayeret Matkal, produced a daring strategy, backed by Dan Shomron. The plans of the terminal were obtained from the Israeli builder but, when they proved outdated, the Mossad came up with another intelligence source: piloted by a British pilot, a Boeing 707 feigned a malfunction in its undercarriage and made three low and slow passes over Entebbe, after which the pilot of the ‘crippled’ jet informed the tower that, despite best efforts, he was unable to lower the landing gear and was “returning to his home airfield to crash-land.” Actually onboard that 707 was an Israeli aerial photographer who diligently recorded every inch of the airport.

Betser revealed recently how the final plan was chosen:

The hijackers made a grave mistake – and separated the Israelis and the gentiles that were released. Among the hostages that were released there was also a Jewish French officer, with a phenomenal memory, who provided us with the complete picture. We showed him the blueprints of the airport, and from him we learned where the hostages were being kept, how many terrorists were on the ground, if they were worried by the prospects of a military operation, and what was the ratio between them and the Ugandans. We realized that they were not concerned at all by a military operation, since negotiations were underway by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Yigal Alon. We understood from him that the terrorists were relaxed and confident in their success. We learned that everything was planned in advance and Idi Amin was kept informed. The general picture made it clear that Israel had to get there in full force – and “full force” meant the fourth plan.

With the deadline looming, Chief of Staff General Mota Gur told Rabin that none of the IDF’s C-130 Hercules rescue plans was close to operational. In that case, said Rabin, negotiation was the only option. At Entebbe, the hostages were counting down the minutes to the deadline when Amin visited with momentous news: he had persuaded the terrorists to release another 100 hostages – and to extend the deadline to 2 p.m. Sunday. This gave the IDF three more days to perfect a rescue plan. Aware that Amin was helping the terrorists, the planners abandoned the schemes with no exit strategy and settled on landing four transport planes at the airport, “freeing the hostages, and flying out.”

Where was Yonatan?

The reserve commander of the Unit, Major Moshe “Muki” Betser, thought the chances of the operation going forward were slim.  He was the deputy to Sayeret Matkal’s commander Yoni Netanyahu who was posted in the Sinai where he was involved in sensitive operational exercises at Um Hashiba, Israel’s communication and intelligence nerve center in the peninsula.  Betser kept Yoni briefed on the developments of the plan but assured him that what he was doing in the Sinai was important.

Yoni, whose name became synonymous with the operation, did not join the planning process until Day five of the hijacking.

While Dan Shomron assembled forces of the paratroopers’ brigade and Golani brigade to enforce the spearhead attack by Sayeret Matkal, its officers conceived a plan involving a clandestine approach to the terminal where the hostages slept while three or four terrorists kept watch. They would approach the target under the pretense of a visit by Idi Amin and drive a convoy of Mercedes escorted by two Land Rovers, as was Amin’s usual practice.

Yosi Zin, the officer in charge of technical support, hunted nearby Arab towns for large Mercedes that resembled cars used by Amin. After locating a black Mercedes in a junkyard, it soon ground to a halt in a cloud of grey smoke from under the hood. Mechanics reworked the engine to enable it to travel a kilometre from the landing plane to the terminal. But, alas, the licence plate of their Mercedes had Arabic characters not the Ugandan norm of three English letters and three or four digits. The support team simply sprayed it black to disguise the anomaly.

In the interim, Israel negotiated permission from Kenyan officials for IDF aircraft to cross Kenyan airspace and refuel at a Nairobi airport. Mossad director Khofi contacted Kenyan Agriculture Minister Bruce Mackenzie who consulted with Home Affairs Undersecretary Nicholas Biwott, a network that enabled Mossad operative Shalomo Gal to charter the plane that photographed Entebbe that augmented intelligence. Michael Harari, another Mossad senior agent, provided useful information by disguising himself as an Italian businessman and traveling to Entebbe.

To the Mossad liaison officer, the Kenyan security chiefs named the price for their co-operation: the destruction of the Ugandan Air Force and, if possible, the assassination of Idi Amin.

Takeoff without permission

Despite the clock running down, government deliberations continued with no decision. Dan Shomron and Air Force chief Beni Peled authorized boarding and takeoff. The flight time was long and this was the last chance to land before the expiry of the ultimatum.  The squadron of four C-130 Hercules carriers took off and refueled in Sharem Al-Sheikh on the Southern tip of Sinai. They took off again and flew low (10-20 metres above sea level) to avoid detection by Egyptian, Saudi and Sudanese radar systems. The lead aircraft carried the Mercedes, two Land Rovers in Ugandan colours, and the teams of Sayeret Matkal, who were to “neutralize” the terrorists and save as many hostages as possible. Their plan presupposed that Ugandan soldiers guarding the perimeter of the terminal would assume the approaching convoy belonged to President Amin and let it through.

The element of surprise was probably the biggest edge that Israel held. According to Brig. Gen. (res.) Shomron:

You had more than a hundred people sitting in a small room, surrounded by terrorists with their fingers on the trigger. They could fire in a fraction of a second. We had to fly seven hours, land safely, drive to the terminal area where the hostages were being held, get inside, and eliminate all the terrorists before any of them could fire.

Breach of Security

A few details regarding Operation Entebbe leaked when some Kenyan Air Force officers bickered over anticipated operational cash from Israel. Uganda’s Ambassador to Lesotho, learnt of it and alerted Brig. Isaac Maliyamungu who, shockingly, took no action. While Amin was in Mauritius to hand over the OAU chairmanship, Maliyamungu continued visiting his 32 wives and concubines and distributing cash he withdrew from Libyan Arab Bank.

Diversion from the Plan

After the first C-130 landed on a fully illuminated runway – without alerting the control tower – the assault convoy disembarked and proceeded toward the terminal. Although the plan was to make the Ugandans believe the Mercedes contained president Amin, when assault commander Yoni Netanyahu saw a Ugandan sentry raise his weapon, he told his driver to “cut to the right and we’ll finish him off.”

This was, said Betser, “against the plan…which [was] to get directly to the terminal building and ignore the Ugandans.” Betser believed the sentry was following standard procedure and would not open fire. But Netanyahu, believing otherwise, shot the sentry with a silenced handgun. He was followed by unmuffled fire from the Land Rover and other shots were exchanged with Ugandan guards.

With the element of surprise lost and a firefight underway, Betser expected the building to “vanish in a fireball of explosions as the terrorists followed through their threats to blow up the hostages.” But this did not happen. The terrorists had lied to the hostages about this threat.

Terrorists shooting from the windows were taken down. The hostages lay flat on the ground while the Force entered the terminal and spread out to locate the German terrorists in the VIP room and the Ugandan guards on the second floor. Three hostages were hit, some by friendly fire. Yoni and his communication aid attempted to reach the command position and Yoni was mortally wounded in minute three of the assault.

Seven minutes after the first landing, three more C-139s landed on the darkened runway now marked by lanterns laid by the paratroopers of the first C-130. The Forces spread around the airport to block reinforcements of the Ugandan Army.

Kenya’s collaboration infuriated Amin since his 11 MiG fighter jets were destroyed by the paratroopers’ squad after assault commandos secured the hostages.

All hostages were loaded on the designated plane. The aircrafts were refueled from local tanks, but time was too short to load the refueling equipment, which was abandoned on ground. The whole affair lasted just seven minutes.

59 minutes after the first landing, the planes took off as the Medical Officer announced Yonatan’s death. The rest of the operation unfolded as planned: after refueling in Kenya they proceeded to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport.

Fathers of Success

Success has many fathers – failure is an orphan. Or, occasionally, has one parent who takes the blame. In this case it was Dan Shomron who would have taken the blame, probably with Major Muki Betser. Shomron was honest, professional, stubborn and persistent, never outspoken and always cool. He later became IDF Chief of Staff but never claimed a decoration or credit for this “Guinness Record” military operation, which was renamed Mivtza Yonatan in Israel in honour of its fallen commander and national hero.

They dared and won!

PS: Saul David in his recent book notes: PLO’s Hijacking Mastermind W. Haddad died less than two years after Entebbe. He liked fine chocolates. Once the Mossad learned of this, they arranged for a poisoned box of Belgian chocolates to be delivered. Haddad perished of a sweet tooth.

Bibliography and further reading

Arieh Oded Israeli-Ugandan Relations in the Time of Idi Amin Jewish Political Studies Review 18:3-4 (Fall 2006)

The chief pilot for the mission, Brig. Gen. (res.) Joshua Shani, Reliving the raid and rescue at Entebbe

John Stemple, Former IDF paratrooper Sassy Reuven recalls Entebbe rescue mission 20th Century Aviation Magazine

Muwonge Magembe, How Israeli security convinced Kenya to support Entebbe raid

Saul David ‘Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, The Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History

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