Operation Thunderbolt - Raid on Entebbe

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One of the countries in the eastern region of the African continent is Uganda, situated on a plateau that lies three thousand feet above sea level. The country has thick forests in the south and savanna in the north. In the south-west are the Virunga and Ruwenzora mountain ranges which provide spectacular scenery. To the south is Lake Victoria, which separates it from Tanzania, to the east Kenya, to the west the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mount Stanley, while in the north it borders Sudan. The city of Jinja, which is situated on the north eastern shores of Lake Victoria is where the source of the river Nile is at Owen Falls (also known as “Naluballe Dam. See “Dr David Livingstone – Missionary and Explorer”) where Amin had countless dead bodies of those who opposed him, thrown into. To the south east of this, is the city of Entebbe, which is remembered for a dramatic rescue of hostages whose plane had been highjacked by highjackers from PFLP and Baader Meinhoff Gang.

The name “Uganda” is derived from the Buganda Kingdom which encompasses a portion of the south of the country and includes the capital, Kampala. European settlers who arrived in the 1850s found the country to be one of the richest kingdoms on the continent. One of the well known locations in the country is The Owen Falls (previously known as The Rippon Falls) at Jinja which is north east of the capital and where the source of the Nile is (see Asians in East Africa – A Brief History). But what is remembered as a, more, recent, historical event is an event, which took place south west of Kampala, at the old Airport in Entebbe. Here there’s a plaque which is on display and the old control tower on which there are bullet holes visible – a reminder of the event that took place, a mission to rescue hostages.


Idi Amin was born in 1925. His father, who had converted to Islam from a Roman catholic, abandoned him and the young Idi lived with his mother’s family. In 1941, he joined the Islamic school at Bombo, situated north of Kampala and 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 in Kenya. 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 for an 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, the Prime Minister, Milton Obote and Idi Amin were implicated in smuggling of ivory and gold into the country from the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was in support of those opposing the then Congolese government and a year later, the Ugandan parliament ordered an investigation into this, which led to Obote abolishing the leadership of King Mutesa, who 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, soon took control of the Armed forces and thus reduced Amin’s position as Commander of the Army only instead of all Armed forces.

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


In 1972, the Ugandan dictator expelled all Asians (Indians), most of who were born in the country as their ancestors had arrived at a time when it was a British Colony (see “Asians in East Africa – A Brief History”” and held British passports. Their businesses were handed over to those who supported Amin. As a result, India broke off diplomatic relations with Uganda, who, also broke diplomatic relations with Britain and went on to nationalise British owned businesses.

Amin wanted armaments, most of which he had hoped to use against Tanzania as he wanted a war and defeat those Ugandans living in Tanzania and opposed him. He requested Israel, with who had a good diplomatic relation. This was refused and Amin expelled Israeli Military Advisors and by doing this, he broke diplomatic relations with Israel and turned to Libya, which was under the leadership of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and the Soviet Union, the largest suppliers of armaments. Until now, Israeli companies had been involved with construction in Uganda and one such was that of the airport at Entebbe.


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 was further raised between the two countries when the Ugandan dictator announced that he would investigate the possibility of Southern Sudan and parts Kenya had been a part of 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. As a result, Amin backed down.


On 27 June, 1976, Air France flight 139, an Air bus, took off from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, Israel, carrying 248 passengers (passenger nationalities: Belgium 4, Brazil 2, France 42, Greece 25, Germany 1, Israel 92, Italy 9, Japan 1, South Korea 1, United Kingdom 30, and USA 34) and a crew of 12 and headed for Paris, via Athens. The security at Athens airport was slack as there was no one to man the metal detectors as well as the x – ray machines and soon after take off from Athens, four people – two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a splinter group of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation, which was founded in 1964) and two Germans from the notorious Baader Meinhoff Gang – Wilfred Bose and a female, Brigitte Kuhlman, brandished guns and grenades and also got into the Pilot’s cockpit and pointed a gun at Captain Michel Bacos’s head. Any passengers who tried to move or do anything of the sort 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, immediately informed the Israeli authorities, who informed their Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who was serving his first term in office. Troops, specialising in such circumstances, were put on alert at Ben Gurion airport in the event of the airbus coming back.


For the passengers of the Air France plane, it was a frightening experience not knowing where they were being taken. But after the highjack, the aircraft turned south of Greece and headed towards Benghazi, Libya, North Africa. At first the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, who overthrew the Libyan Royal family in a coup d’etat in 1969, refused to allow the airbus plane to land but then changed his mind and allowed it to refuel only. While on ground, in the sweltering heat, a female hostage, pretendeing to be pregnant, was allowed to be released and was soon put on a Libyan plane for London, where she was debriefed by the Scotland Yard.

Several hours after landing in Libya, the plane took off and, once again, headed for an unknown destination. But soon it landed at Entebbe, in the East African country of 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 had to spend the night on the plane.


The following day, the hostages and the crew were ordered into the airport terminal, where, once again, they were greeted by 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 the female hostage could continue with her sentence.

Previously Amin had proclaimed himself to be known as “Idi Amin Dada, C.B.E,” 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 highjacked the Air France flight.

It soon became known that the highjacked plane was in Uganda and in Israel , Prime Minister Rabin urged his Generals to come up with plans to rescue the hostages, which seemed impossible as Uganda was thousands of miles away and there was no information about anything, including the airport. Soon, a company, claiming to have built Entebbe airport, came forward, claiming that it had architectural plans of it. What was still lacking was the information on the condition of the terminal, where the passengers were held and who the highjackers were. Many Israelis had not forgotten what had happened to their Athletes in Munich at the Olympic games in 1972, when the members of the militant group, Black September, who had links with the Fatah group, a part of the PLO (whose chairman at the time was Yasser Arafat), took Israeli Athletes hostage and started to kill them when West German forces raided them. For this reason, some were considering negotiating..

Soon, the Israeli intelligence services began to receive information on the highjackers and one of the names was of Vadir Hadad, the leader of PFLP.. However, a rescue mission still seemed impossible and 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 highjackers and this left Rabin and his officials, pondering on what to do.


On 30 June, the highjackers announced their demands on Radio Kampala. They demanded release of forty Palestinians who were held in Israel along with fifteen 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 if their demands were not met, then they would start executing the hostages from 2.00pm on 2 July. After the announcement was made, 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 highjacker. The tattoo was that of camp registration number from the holocaust and the hostage was a survivor of it.

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

One of the hostages, being mistaken as a non Jew, was a French Jew, who had some military experience as well as a good memory for details. His information would soon be of use.

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


The release of the hostages seemed to be a public relations coup for the highjackers but the moment the freed hostages landed, they were debriefed by members of the Israeli intelligence, the Mosad. It was from this, that it became clear to the Israeli authorities that if there was to be military involvement, then its forces wouldn’t just have to confront the highjackers but also the Ugandan armed forces. Furthermore, what became known was that a part of the airport was also used by the Ugandan Air Force and that there were MiGs there.

As the deadline approached, the family members of the remaining hostages, demanded that Rabin and his government negotiate with the highjackers for the release of their loved ones. At a meeting, the Defence Minister, Shimon Perez, said that negotiating with Hadad and his men was not option and a military option now seemed imminent. Meanwhile, an assault force, led by Lt Colonel Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu, a veteran of the Yom Kippur war and the elder brother of the current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was training for the possible raid and were using a model of Entebbe airport that had been constructed. The force consisted of commandos from Sayeret Matkel (an elite Special Forces unit of the Israeli Defence Force). Their instructions were to memorise the faces of the highjackers from the photographs that they received. Else where, 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, insisted on having a debate on what could be done and informed the Ugandan authorities that they were willing to negotiate with the highjackers and therefore needed time. Amin asked the highjackers 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 Seeoosagur Ramgoolam, the Prime Minister of Mauritius. This was agreed and it gave enough time to the Israeli forces to prepare for action.

If the military option was to go ahead, then one major problem that needed to be resolved was that of 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 was taking shape and was soon code named “Operation Thunderbalt.”

Major General Yekutiel Adam was appointed the overall commander of the mission and Matan Vilnai became his deputy as Brigadier Shomrom was appointed as the commander of the operation on the ground as well as the communication and support personnel. The assault force was to be led by Lt Colonel Yoni Netanyahu and Moshe Betser was appointed as his assistant. The task force numbered one hundred.


1. Fly down the International flight path over the Red Sea at a height of not more than 100 feet 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. Element of surprise for the highjackers and therefore total secrecy.
4. Transport planes would carry a black Mercedes Benz with a small Ugandan flag on at the front to make the authorities think that Ugandan official was inside and was returning. Yoni Netanyahu would be inside the vehicle. There would also be Land Rovers.
5. All men would be dressed 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. Assist with ground and refuel the transport planes.
9. Provide protection and assist in loading the hostages on planes.
10. Estimated refuelling time at Entebbe: one hour (if Kenya refused the request).

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 yet not been resolved and a former member of the Sayeret Matkal and a member of the Defence force, Ehud Barack, was despatched to the Kenyan capital with the request. The other problem was that there was no up to date information on where the hostages were situated and what sort of defences were at Entebbe and whether there were any booby traps 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. A time limit was also set for the approval – three hours after the take off at which there would be no point of return for the planes carrying the commandos.

The men who had been preparing for the rescue mission, were soon put in quarantine so that they would not able to communicate with anyone and thereby avoid any possible leakage of any information. A total secrecy was now in existence.

On the evening of 02 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 on the possible raid on Entebbe, should be allowed to spend the night with their families and their loved ones.


In the early afternoon of 03 July, as the planes took off from Israel, a Mosad agent, in Nairobi, hired a small aircraft from the city’s small, Wilson airport and flew to Uganda. As the small plane approached Entebbe, the pilot reported a malfunction and asked for landing permission, which the unsuspecting authorities granted and the small aircraft, slowly began to descend. As it began to descend and circle over the airport, the agent took photographs and relayed them back to the authorities in Israel. The photographs showed the location of hostages as well as the defences of the Ugandan armed forces nearby. Another photograph showed Ugandan soldiers inside the airport terminal. With this evidence, the Israeli authorities decided that since there were Ugandan soldiers inside the terminal it was not booby trapped and this was sent to Major General Yekutiel Adam, who was on board one of the Boeing 707s that would be flying over Entebbe at the time as the commandos would be on ground, rescuing the hostages. This information 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. “Operation Thunderbalt” was to go ahead.

Back in Uganda, a elderly female hostage, Dora Bloch, aged seventy five, 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.


As the leading plane began descend, Yoni Netanyahu and some of his men took their positions in the black Mercedes Benz. But unknown to them and the Israeli authorities, Amin had recently ordered a white coloured Mercedes. 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 and as they approached the terminal building, adjacent to the runway, two Ugandan soldiers were spotted. One Israeli commando, in the Mercedes, took out his silencer pistol and shot them and drove on, followed by the Land Rovers. One commando, noticed that one of the soldiers was moving on the ground and took out his Kalashnikov and shot him. The firing of the Kalashnikov alerted the highjackers and the other Ugandan soldiers. The element of surprise was no more.

The runway lights were switched off immediately and the remaining transport planes landed in total darkness and began to unload armoured vehicles which were to be used for defence during the process of refuelling and also to prevent the MiG fighters from intervening by destroying them.

“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 as a highjacker and shot, another got fatally wounded and a third was killed in a crossfire between the commandos and the highjackers. Minutes, later, one of the commandos asked where the other highjackers 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 then went inside and shot the remaining highjackers and then gathered the hostages and began to take them to the transport planes outside. As the hostages were getting on board, some Ugandan soldiers began to fire at them and this led to 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. As Moshe Betser tried to contact his leader, he was informed that he had been killed. Netanyahu’s body was then carried onto one of the transport planes.

The process of refuelling soon began but soon the orders came through that the neighbouring country, Kenya had agreed to allow the planes to refuel and the planes took off for Nairobi with all the hostages, wounded or dead and a dead Israeli commando.


A thirteen year old teenager, who was at Nairobi’s Embakasi airport, hoping to see one of his relatives get on board a British Airways flight to London, stood at the very edge of the observation post, situated on the roof of the airport, watching the planes take off and land, when suddenly he noticed the Hercules planes landing. Fifty minutes after taking off from Entebbe, the first Hercules landed at Nairobi’s Embakasi airport and taxied to a halt behind one of the passenger planes parked outside the terminal. A maintenance vehicle drove up to it. The thirteen year old teenager looked inquisitively and noticed that there were other such planes which had come to halt in the distance and that maintenance vehicles and other unmarked vehicles were driving up to them. The process of refuelling began and those who needed medical attention were attended to. Some, who needed more attention, 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 as were the hostages who had heard this. A couple of hours before dawn the planes took off. Their return flight route was the same as the one they had taken when flying to Entebbe

The news of the raid was announced by the BBC in the early hours of 04 July and thousands of people gathered to greet the rescued hostages as they landed in Israel and the commandos received a heroes’ welcome.

Out of the 105 hostages, 3 were killed, 10 were wounded, 5 Israeli commandos were wounded, 1 commando was killed in action, 11 Ugandan MiGs were destroyed, 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed and all the highjackers had been killed.


Idi Amin felt humiliated by the raid and believed that Kenya was involved in it and 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 and 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 denounced to the world that a small country, in Israel’s circumstances, with which the members of the council are familiar, the dignity of men, human life, and human freedom constitute the highest values. We are proud not only because we have saved the lives of over a 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 national sovereignty of a United Nations member state – meaning Uganda. But the council declined to pass a resolution on the matter.

The raid had weakened Amin’s regime and in 1978, some dissident troops ambushed him at his Presidential lodge but he, with his family managed to escape and then his vice President was involved in suspicious accident and was injured. Soon some members of the armed forces mutinied and this led to the Ugandan dictator sending troops to fight them. This eventually spilled across the border into Tanzania and those Ugandans, who were anti – Amin and who had been living there, soon joined the rebellion. This led to the Ugandan dictator declaring war on Tanzania and as a result, he sent in troops to annex the Kagera region of Tanzania, claiming that belonged to Uganda. This led to war.

In 1979, as the Tanzanian troops marched across Uganda, Amin fled. And Dora Bloch’s body was discovered at a sugar plantation, twenty 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.

On New Year’s Eve, 1980, the thirteen year old teenager, now aged seventeen, who had witnessed the Israeli planes landing at Embakasi airport, was getting dressed to go out, when he heard a loud explosion, which shook his house. A bomb had gone off at Nairobi’s most famous and popular tourist hotel, The Norfolk, which was owned by a Jewish family. Sixteen 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 given to a Palestinian who had links with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.


Idi Amin, after being ousted in the war with Tanzania, fled to Saudi Arabia, where on 16 August 2003, he passed away. He is buried at the Ruwais Cemetary in Jeddah.

Yoni Netanyahu is buried at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem’s military cemetery. His younger brother, Benjamin, also a member of Sayeret Matkel, became Prime Minister of Israel from 1996 to 1999 and is, the current Prime Minister.

Yitzhak Rabin resigned and called for early elections in early December, 1976. Again, he resigned the following year but went on to serve as Prime Minister until the incoming, elected Prime Minister; Monachem Begin was able to form his government. In 1993, Rabin, was re - elected Prime Minister. He was assassinated in 1995, while still in office.

Shimon Perez went onto become Prime Minister from 1984 to 1986 and then again after Rabin was assassinated.

Ehud Barack went onto become Prime Minister from 1999 to 2001.

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

The old Entebbe airport was demolished in 2007 and a domestic terminal was built on it, on which there’s also a plaque mentioning the historical event.

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.


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 but received one.

On 09 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 Bucholz as “Wilfred Bose,” Sylvia Sidney as “Dora Bloch,” Charles Bronson as “Dan Shomron,” Yaphett Kotto as “Idi Amin” and David Opatoshu as “Monachem 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 was released in 1981, which starred Joseph Oleta as “Idi Amin” and also in “The Last King of Scotland,” directed by Kevin Macdonald and was released in 2007, starring 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 “Entebbe Raid.”

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