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Operation Thunderbolt - Raid on Entebbe

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A caricature of Idi Amin by Edmund Valtman.

At Embakasi airport in Nairobi, Kenya, a 13-year-old boy stood at the very edge of the roof-top observation post. He was watching the planes take off and land, hoping to see one of his relatives boarding a flight to London. Suddenly he noticed a fleet of Hercules military transport planes landing. What was going on?

Introduction

Uganda, in the eastern region of the African continent, is situated on a plateau, about 3,000 feet (1,000m) above sea level. The country has thick forests in the south and savannah in the north. In the southwest lie the spectacular Virunga and Rwenzori mountain ranges. To the south is Lake Victoria, which separates it from Tanzania; to the east is Kenya; to the west lies the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mount Stanley, while in the north it borders Sudan.

The city of Entebbe lies on the north shore of Lake Victoria, about 30km from the capital, Kampala. It is best remembered for a historic event that took place in 1976 at the airport there: the crew and passengers of a plane, held hostage by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Baader Meinhof Gang, were rescued in the dramatic 'Operation Thunderbolt'.

Idi Amin

Idi Amin was born in 1925. Abandoned by his father, the young Idi lived with his mother's family. In 1941, he joined the Islamic school at Bombo, north of Kampala. Five years later, he was recruited into the King's African Rifles as an assistant cook. Soon he was transferred to Kenya as a private for infantry service and was based at Gilgil, a town in the Rift Valley Province. Here he served in the 21st King's African Rifles Battalion until 1949, when it was despatched to fight the Somali Shifta rebels in Somalia. Three years later, it was redeployed to fight the Mau Mau.

In 1954, Amin was made a warrant officer – the highest rank for any African at the time in the Colonial Army – and he returned to Uganda. In 1961, he was promoted to a Lieutenant and was soon sent to quell the cattle rustling that had been taking place between Uganda's Karamojong nomads and Kenya's Turkana nomads. A year later, he was promoted to Captain and in 1963 to a Major.

In 1965, Amin and the Prime Minister, Milton Obote, were implicated in smuggling ivory and gold into the country from the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was in support of those opposing the Congolese government. A year later, the Ugandan parliament ordered an investigation into this. Obote responded with a coup d'état, abolishing the monarchy and declaring himself absolute ruler of the country. He was ably assisted in this by Amin. King Mutesa fled to the UK after his palace was attacked by Amin and his troops. Soon Amin began to gain a lot of support within the armed forces and this led to a rift between him and Obote. The latter used his position of absolute power to take control of the armed forces; he demoted Amin to Commander of the Army only, instead of all armed forces.

In 1971, having learnt that Obote planned to have him arrested, Amin took control of the country, while Obote was abroad attending a Commonwealth meeting in Singapore. Not only was this second coup supported from within the country but also by countries such as Britain and France. The former Ugandan leader took refuge in neighbouring Tanzania, after its president, Julius Nyerere, offered him sanctuary. He was soon joined by 20,000 other Ugandans who had also fled when Amin took over. It was from Tanzania that these men planned a third coup to remove the Ugandan dictator but it failed and as a result, Amin ordered a purge on supporters of Obote. Soon bodies began to appear in the River Nile in such numbers that they clogged up the hydroelectric dam at Owen Falls near the town of Jinja.

Amin and Diplomatic Relations

In 1972, the Ugandan dictator expelled all 'Asians' (Indians), despite the fact that most of them were born in Uganda; their ancestors had arrived when it was a British Colony and they held British passports. Their businesses were handed over to those who supported Amin. As a result, India broke off diplomatic relations with Uganda, who then broke diplomatic relations with Britain and nationalised British-owned businesses.

Amin wanted armaments, mainly to use against Tanzania, where he wanted a war against Ugandans living in Tanzania who opposed him. Up to this time, Uganda had had good diplomatic relations with Israel. Israeli companies had been involved in construction in Uganda - one of their construction projects was in fact the airport at Entebbe.

Amin asked Israel for arms. This request was refused and the dictator responded by expelling Israeli military advisors and breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel. He turned to Libya, which was under the leadership of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and the Soviet Union, who became the largest suppliers of armaments.

Tension with Kenya

In 1975, there was tension when Kenyan authorities at the port of Mombasa impounded a large quantity of Soviet-made arms heading for Uganda. Tension increased between the two countries when the Ugandan dictator announced that he would investigate the possibility of annexing Southern Sudan and areas of Kenya that had been included in Uganda during the Colonial Era. In response to this, the Kenyan authorities said that it would not part with a single inch of its land and ordered its troops to be deployed to the border. Amin backed down.

Hijack of Air France Flight 139

On 27 June, 1976, Air France flight 139, an Airbus, took off from Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport, Israel, carrying 248 passengers1 and a crew of 12. The flight was headed for Paris, via Athens. The security at Athens airport was slack as there was no one to operate the metal detectors or the X-ray machines.

Soon after takeoff from Athens, four people brandishing guns and grenades got into the pilot's cockpit. They were two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a splinter group of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) and two Germans from the notorious Baader Meinhof Gang – Wilfred Bose and Brigitte Kuhlman. They pointed a gun at Captain Michel Bacos's head and forced him to divert the plane. Any passengers who tried to move or do anything were beaten with the butt of a gun or with a hand.

As the plane headed for an unknown destination, the air traffic controllers, who noticed the sudden loss of the aircraft from their monitoring systems, immediately informed the Israeli authorities, who in turn passed the message to their Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, serving his first term in office. Troops specialising in such circumstances were put on alert at Ben Gurion airport in case the Airbus returned to Israel.

Landing in East Africa

For the passengers of the Air France plane, it was frightening not to know where they were being taken. After the hijack, the aircraft turned south of Greece and headed towards Benghazi, Libya in North Africa. At first the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, refused to allow the Airbus plane to land, but then changed his mind and allowed it down for just long enough to refuel. While on the ground, in the sweltering heat, a female hostage, pretending to be pregnant, was released and was soon put on a Libyan plane for London, where she was debriefed at Scotland Yard2.

Several hours after landing in Libya, the plane took off and, once again, headed for an unknown destination. Soon it landed at Entebbe, in Uganda. After coming to a halt, the doors of the plane opened and the Ugandan dictator, with some troops, came on board and greeted the hostages, who were not permitted to leave the aircraft and spent the night on the plane.

Information is Received

The following day, the hostages and the crew were ordered into the airport terminal, where, once again, they met the Ugandan dictator.

'Shalom, shalom', said Idi Amin, as he greeted the hostages.

'Mr President', said a female hostage.

'I am his Excellency, Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada, appointed by God Almighty to be your saviour', yelled out the Ugandan President, before she could continue with her sentence.

Previously Amin had proclaimed himself to be known as 'Idi Amin Dada, CBE,' the latter meaning 'Conqueror of the British Empire', as well as being 'King of Scotland'.

Six men considered to be terrorists were already in the country and soon joined their colleagues who had hijacked the Air France flight.

Word reached Israel that the hijacked plane was in Uganda. Prime Minister Rabin urged his generals to come up with plans to rescue the hostages. This seemed impossible, as Uganda was thousands of miles away and there appeared to be no information about it in Israel. Soon, however, the Israeli company who had been involved in the construction of Entebbe Airport was located, and they had architectural plans of the airport.

What was lacking was information on the current condition of the terminal, where the passengers were held and who the hijackers were. Then the Israeli intelligence services began to receive information on the hijackers; one was Wadi’ Haddad, the leader of the PFLP.

A rescue mission still seemed impossible. Israel had not forgotten the events at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, when members of the militant group Black September took Israeli athletes hostage and killed them when West German forces raided them. For this reason, some began to urge the government to negotiate the release of the hostages, whose demands, as yet, had not been announced. The French authorities indicated that they wouldn't negotiate with the hijackers and this left Rabin and his officials pondering on what to do.

The Demands Announced and Echoes of the Holocaust

On 30 June, the hijackers announced their demands on Radio Kampala: the release of 40 Palestinians who were held in Israel along with 15 others imprisoned in Kenya, France, Switzerland and what was then known as West Germany. A monetary ransom was also demanded from the French. They insisted that if their demands were not met, they would start executing the hostages at 2.00pm on 2 July. After the announcement, the hostages were separated into Jews and non-Jews – an echo from the past when the Jews in Nazi Germany were sent to concentration camps. As they were being separated, one of the Jewish hostages lifted his arm and showed a tattoo to Wilfred Bose, the German hijacker. It was a concentration camp registration number – this hostage had survived the holocaust.

'I am not a Nazi. But I am an idealist', said Wilfred Bose, as the hostages were being separated.

Despite the French authorities insisting that they would not negotiate with the hijackers, on 1 July, an Air France plane landed at Entebbe and the non-Jewish hostages were released. Captain Michel Bacos, however, refused to leave and claimed that those remaining behind were his responsibility. He urged his crew to follow his example.

Planning the Raid

The release of some of the hostages seems to have been done as a public relations exercise for the hijackers, but the moment the freed hostages landed, they were debriefed by members of the Israeli intelligence, the Mossad. It became clear that any Israeli military team would have to confront not only the hijackers but also the Ugandan armed forces. Furthermore, a part of the airport was also used by the Ugandan Air Force and there were Russian fighter planes, MiGs, stationed there.

As the deadline approached, families of the remaining hostages demanded that Rabin and his government negotiate with the hijackers for the release of their loved ones. Defence Minister Shimon Perez said that negotiating with Haddad and his men was not an option. Military intervention now seemed imminent. An assault force led by Lt Colonel Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu3, a veteran of the Yom Kippur War, was training for a possible raid, using a model of Entebbe airport. The force consisted of commandos from Sayeret Matkal, an elite special forces unit of the Israeli Defence Force. They were instructed to memorise the faces of the hijackers from the photographs that they received. Elsewhere, pilots who had flown Hercules C130 transport planes and who had flown over the African continent were ordered to go to a secret location in the Sinai region and practise flying the transport planes.

Rabin, in the meantime, debated on what could be done and informed the Ugandan authorities that they were willing to negotiate with the hijackers and therefore needed time. Amin asked the hijackers to extend the deadline to 4 July as he would be in Mauritius prior to that, to hand over the chairmanship of the OAU (Organisation of African Unity) to Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the Prime Minister of Mauritius. This was agreed and it gave enough time for the Israeli forces to prepare for action.

The plan was taking shape and was soon code-named 'Operation Thunderbolt'. Major General Yekutiel Adam was appointed overall commander of the mission and Matan Vilnai became his deputy. Brigadier Shomron was appointed commander of the operation on the ground as well as of the communication and support personnel. The assault force was to be led by Lt Colonel Yoni Netanyahu assisted by Moshe Betser. The task force numbered 100.

If the military option was to go ahead, then one major problem was refuelling for the return journey. Kenya was the only friendly country in the region but there had been no request made to refuel there.

The Plan

  1. Fly down the international flight path over the Red Sea at a height of not more than 100 feet (30m) to avoid radar detection by the Egyptian, Sudanese and Saudi Arabian forces.

  2. Pass Djibouti and fly south via Ethiopia and Somalia to northeast of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and then fly west over the Rift Valley, over Lake Victoria and land at Entebbe.

  3. Maintain the element of surprise for the hijackers by total secrecy.

  4. Use the transport planes to carry a black Mercedes Benz bearing a small Ugandan flag, to make the authorities think that a Ugandan official was inside and was returning. Yoni Netanyahu would be inside the vehicle. Also transport some Land Rovers.

  5. Dress all men in Ugandan army uniform.

  6. Secure and prevent any hostile ground force from attacking the Hercules planes.

  7. Destroy the Ugandan MiG fighters on the ground and thus prevent them from intercepting the planes carrying the hostages back.

  8. Refuel the transport planes, if no other refuelling location has been identified. Estimated time: 1 hour.

  9. Provide protection and assist in loading the hostages onto planes.

The air armada would consist of four Hercules C130 transport planes and two Boeing 707s – one a hospital and the other a command centre which would fly over Entebbe. However, the problem of refuelling for the return journey had not yet been resolved, so Ehud Barack, a former member of the Sayeret Matkal and a member of the Defence force, was despatched to the Kenyan capital with a request to land and refuel there. The other problem was that there was no up-to-date information on where the hostages were situated, what sort of defences were at Entebbe, and whether there were any boobytraps planted. As the deadline was getting nearer, Rabin was informed that if the military mission was to go ahead, then it should be approved soon. It was decided to go ahead with the mission, but if approval had not arrived by three hours after take-off, the mission would be cancelled and the planes carrying the commandos would turn around and return home.

The men who had been preparing for the rescue mission were put into quarantine so that they could not communicate with anyone, avoiding any possible leaks of information. A state of secrecy was now in existence.

On the evening of 2 July, while Yitzhak Rabin and the members of his government were locked in a marathon debate with the other parties, it was decided that the members of the armed forces participating in the possible raid on Entebbe should be allowed to spend the night with their families and their loved ones.

Codeword Jump!

In the early afternoon of 3 July, as the planes took off from Israel, a Mossad agent in Nairobi hired a small aircraft from the city's Wilson airport and flew to Uganda. As the plane approached Entebbe, the pilot reported a malfunction and asked for landing permission, which the unsuspecting authorities granted. The aircraft slowly began to descend. As it circled over the airport, the agent took photographs and relayed them back to the authorities in Israel. The photographs showed the location of the hostages as well as the defences of the Ugandan armed forces nearby.

Another photograph showed Ugandan soldiers inside the airport terminal, leading the Israeli authorities to conclude that the terminal was not boobytrapped. This information was sent to Major General Yekutiel Adam, who was on board one of the Boeing 707s that would be flying over Entebbe while the commandos were on the ground rescuing the hostages. It was also passed on to the Israeli Prime Minister, who with his cabinet, was still in the meeting with the opposition parties.

In the meantime, the commandos on board the Hercules planes observed total silence. Jump! ordered Yitzhak Rabin, half an hour after the planes had taken off and after the marathon meeting with the opposition had concluded. This was the signal that 'Operation Thunderbolt' was to go ahead.

Back in Uganda, Dora Bloch, a 75-year-old female hostage, became ill and had to be taken to Mulago Hospital, situated in the northern part of the capital. Her son, who had been with her until now, was forbidden to accompany her.

Operation Thunderbolt

As the leading plane began to descend, Yoni Netanyahu and some of his men took their positions in the black Mercedes Benz. The pilot of the Hercules noticed that the runway landing lights were on.

As the first C130 landed and taxied to a halt, the cargo bay doors opened and the black Mercedes came rolling off, accompanied by the Land Rovers. As they approached the terminal building adjacent to the runway, two Ugandan soldiers were spotted. One Israeli commando in the Mercedes shot them both with his silencer pistol, and the car drove on, followed by the Land Rovers. A commando noticed that one of the soldiers was still moving on the ground and shot him again, with his Kalashnikov rifle. The firing of the Kalashnikov alerted the hijackers and the other Ugandan soldiers; the element of surprise had been lost.

The runway lights were switched off immediately and the remaining transport planes landed in total darkness. They began to unload armoured vehicles which were to be used for defence during the process of refuelling and also to destroy the MiG fighter planes.

'Stay down! We are Israeli soldiers,' ordered some of the commandos in Hebrew and English, as they burst into the terminal.

One hostage, instead of doing as ordered, stood up to identify himself and was mistaken for a hijacker and shot; another was fatally wounded and a third was killed in crossfire between the commandos and the hijackers. Minutes later, one of the commandos asked where the other hijackers were. In response to this, some hostages who had been taking cover pointed to a door, which was soon opened and several hand grenades were thrown in. The commandos went inside and shot the remaining hijackers, then gathered the hostages and took them to the transport planes outside. As the hostages were getting on board, some Ugandan soldiers began to fire at them. There was a brief but intense fire fight between them and the Israeli commandos. A Ugandan sniper, hiding inside the control tower, shot and killed the Israeli assault team leader, Lt Colonel Yoni Netanyahu. Netanyahu's body was then carried onto one of the transport planes.

The process of refuelling then began, but soon the news came through that the authorities in Kenya had agreed to allow the planes to refuel there. The planes took off for Nairobi with all the hostages, including the wounded and dead, and a dead Israeli commando.

Landing at Nairobi, Kenya

At Nairobi's Embakasi airport, 50 minutes later, the 13-year-old boy we have already mentioned stood at the roof-top observation post, watching the planes. Suddenly he noticed the Hercules planes landing. The first one taxied to a halt behind one of the passenger planes parked outside the terminal. A maintenance vehicle drove up to it. The teenager looked inquisitively and noticed that there were other such planes which had come to a halt in the distance and that maintenance vehicles and other unmarked vehicles were driving up to them.

As refuelling began, those who needed medical attention were attended to. Some who were more seriously injured were taken to the hospitals in the city. All passenger flights were delayed and no members of the public were allowed to leave the airport. Inside one of the Hercules planes, commandos returning from the mission got to hear the news about their leader being killed in action and were devastated. A couple of hours before dawn, the planes took off. Their return flight to Israel followed the route they had taken when flying to Entebbe.

The news of the raid was announced by the BBC in the early hours of 4 July and thousands of people gathered to greet the rescued hostages as they landed in Israel. The commandos received a hero's welcome.

Out of the 105 hostages, three were killed and ten were wounded. In addition, five Israeli commandos were wounded, one commando was killed in action, 11 Ugandan MiGs were destroyed, 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed and all the hijackers were killed.

Aftermath

Idi Amin felt humiliated by the raid and believed that Kenya was involved in it. He ordered all Kenyans living in Uganda to be put to death. An execution order for the elderly female hostage, Dora Bloch, who had been taken to Mulago Hospital before the raid, was also issued. She was dragged out of the hospital bed and executed; anyone who tried to intervene faced the same fate. In Kenya, it became widely known that Dora Bloch had been executed on Amin's orders.

The Ugandan government took the matter to the United Nations to seek an official condemnation of the raid as a violation of its sovereignty. The Israeli ambassador to the UN, Chaim Herzog, in his address to the UN Security council, said:

We come with a simple message to the Council: we are proud of what we have done, because we have demonstrated to the world that in a small country, in Israel's circumstances, with which the members of this Council are by now all too familiar, the dignity of man, human life and human freedom constitute the highest values. We are proud not only because we have saved the lives of over one hundred innocent people – men, women and children – but because of the significance of our act for the cause of human freedom.

The UN Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim, an Austrian, said that the raid was a serious violation of the national sovereignty of Uganda, a United Nations member state. But the council declined to pass a resolution on the matter.

The raid had weakened Amin's regime. Two years later, in 1978, public feeling against him boiled over and there was a rebellion which spilled over into neighbouring Tanzania, where many Ugandan-born opponents of the dictator now lived. This escalated into a full-scale war between the two countries, which Tanzania won in 1979.

As the victorious Tanzanian troops marched across Uganda, Amin fled. Dora Bloch's body was discovered at a sugar plantation, 20 miles east of the capital. But it wasn't until 1987 that it was confirmed by the Ugandan Attorney General and the Minister of Justice, Henry Kyemba, to the Ugandan Human Rights Commission that Dora Bloch had been executed on Amin's orders.

It Goes On

On New Year's Eve, 1980, a 17-year-old teenager, who remembered witnessing the Israeli planes landing at Embakasi airport when he was 13, was getting dressed to go out when his house was shaken by a loud explosion. A bomb had gone off at Nairobi's most famous and popular tourist hotel, the Norfolk, which was owned by a Jewish family. A total of 16 people, mostly Kenyans, were killed and the authorities later revealed that a timed bomb had been planted in a room above the hotel's restaurant and that the room had been taken by a Palestinian who had links with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Fates

  • Idi Amin, after being ousted in the war with Tanzania, fled to Saudi Arabia, where he remained until his death on 16 August, 2003. He is buried at the Ruwais Cemetery in Jeddah.

  • Yoni Netanyahu, the Israeli commando killed during the raid, is buried at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem's military cemetery.

  • Yitzhak Rabin served as Prime Minister on a number of occasions and was assassinated in 1995, while still in office.

  • Shimon Perez and Ehud Barack both went on to serve as Prime Minister of Israel.

  • Air France captain Michel Bacos was reprimanded by his superiors and temporarily suspended from his job for refusing to depart when the hijackers had allowed him to.

  • The old Entebbe airport was demolished in 2007, except for the control tower. A new domestic terminal was built on the site. There is a plaque on the new building commemorating the historic event. The old control tower still has bullet holes visible – a reminder of the event that took place, a mission to rescue hostages.

  • Nairobi's Embakasi airport closed down on 14 March, 1978 and the current airport, Jomo Kenyatta International, named after the first President of Kenya, was opened.

Dramatisations

The first dramatised version of the rescue mission, Victory at Entebbe, was shown on television on 13 December, 1976. It starred Kirk Douglas, Richard Dreyfuss as Yoni Netanyahu, Julius Harris as Idi Amin, Anthony Hopkins as Yitzhak Rabin and Burt Lancaster as Shimon Perez. This was nominated for four Emmy Awards and received one.

On 9 January, 1977, another dramatised version of the rescue mission entitled Raid on Entebbe was shown on television. It starred Peter Finch as Yitzhak Rabin, Martin Balsam, Horst Buchholz as Wilfred Bose, Sylvia Sidney as Dora Bloch, Charles Bronson as Dan Shomron, Yaphet Kotto as Idi Amin and David Opatoshu as Menachem Begin. It was nominated for eight Emmy Awards but went on to receive more and also went on to receive a Golden Globe Award for 'Best Motion Picture Made for TV'.

The rescue mission also featured in the movie Rise and Fall of Idi Amin, directed by Sharad Patel and released in 1981. It starred Joseph Olita as Idi Amin. Finally, the mission once again featured in The Last King of Scotland, directed by Kevin Macdonald and released in 2007. It starred Forest Whittaker, who received an Academy Award as Best Actor.

'Operation Thunderbolt' is also known as 'Operation Entebbe', 'Operation Yonatan' (in memory of Lt Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu) and the 'Entebbe Raid'.

1Including 4 from Belgium, 2 from Brazil, 42 from France, 25 from Greece, 1 from Germany, 92 from Israel, 9 from Italy, 1 from Japan, 1 from South Korea, 30 from the United Kingdom, and 34 from the USA.2The headquarters of the London Metropolitan Police.3Elder brother of the current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

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