The 240th anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America went past on July 4, 2016 with traditional fireworks displays, parades, concerts, barbecues, etc. Watching the celebrations on TV brought to my mind the bicentennial celebrations of U.S.A on July 4 forty years ago, when yet another jubilation rang out in some parts of the world related to an incident that lasted one week and ended with a daring rescue at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda which was featured in many print and visual media including the following three streams:
1: VICTORY AT ENTEBBE (telecasted on December 13, 1976)
Scarce anything awakens attention like a tale of cruelty – wrote Dr. Samuel Johnson (The Idler, 1758). The hijacking of the Air France flight 139 and rescue of hostages at Entebbe in 1976 had all the right spice and human drama to inspire more than 15 U.S film production units/studios to cash in on the events quickly. Emmy Award-winner screenwriter Ernest Kinoy quickly drew up a 200-page treatment for David L. Wolper Productions, 50% longer than most scripts, since it was originally planned as a three-hour telecast on ABC Television. Directed by Marvin J. Chomsky with music score by Charles Fox, it was also made into a theatrical film for overseas distribution. This moderate telefilm was originally shot on videotape and transferred to film for convenience in shooting and editing. Shot at Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, California, its stellar cast consisted of Helmut Berger, Linda Blair, Kirk Douglas, Richard Dreyfuss, Helen Hayes, Anthony Hopkins, Burt Lancaster, Elizabeth Taylor, Julius Harris, etc. However, the film suffered owing to a script laden with clichéd dialogues and characterization which should have been reworked. According to the biography of a crew member, few days into the shooting, actor/comedian Godfrey Cambridge, cast in the role of President Idi Amin, died on the filming stage from a heart attack and was replaced by Julius Harris.
2: RAID ON ENTEBBE (telecasted on January 9, 1977)
Made for television, this was written by Golden Globe award winner Barry Beckerman and directed by Irvin Kershner (The Eyes of Laura Mars, Never Say Never Again). Of the two telemovies that came out five months after Operation Entebbe, this is considered a better paced dramatization of the hijacking and rescue and stars Peter Finch, Charles Bronson, Horst Buchholz, John Saxon, Sylvia Sidney, etc. American actor Yaphet Kotto appears as Idi Amin. The factual production had already started in late June 1976 while the hijacking incident was in progress. Telecasted by NBC, it won a Golden Globe as the Best Motion Picture Made for Television in the 35th Annual Golden Globe Awards. The film which originally ran 152 min. but cut to 113 min. for theatrical release was earlier released in theatres of Denmark on December 26, 1976.
3: MIVTSA YONATAN (ENTEBBE – OPERATION THUNDERBOLT) (released on January 27, 1977)
Nominated for the Best Oscar for Foreign Language Film, this story of the daring commando raid at Entebbe is presented in a simple narrative of good versus evil and concentrates on the rescue of the hostages, the main issue, without dwelling on hijackers’ motives, etc. Crackling with action, the film was directed by leading Israeli producer/writer Menahem Golan. According to a book, Golan had originally requested and was denied permission to accompany Israeli forces to shoot a documentary film, should any orders were given for a rescue attempt. The film was mainly shot at the specially constructed full-size replica of the Entebbe Airport terminal. The cast featured Israeli singer/actor Yehoram Gaon, Assaf Dayan, son of military leader/statesman Moshe Dayan, stage/screen actress Gila Almagor, etc, besides Israeli military personnel and equipment, some people who had actually been on the hijacked plane, including footage of some key Government officials of Israel of that time. German actor Klaus Kinski appeared as the fair-haired Wilfried Böse while Austrian actress Sybil Danning is notable in the role of deeply macho Halima. Kinski’s presence as leader of the hijackers and Dov Seltzer’s music (performed by Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) elevates this adaptation by American screenwriter Clarke Reynolds, above the two rushed-out TV versions. Golan had later told in an interview that the movie depicts exactly how Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu was hit.
The much analysed and debated Entebbe rescue operation has also spawned books, documentaries, movies, web articles, etc, most of which I have virtually gone through, leading me on to specific or general knowledge on this subject based on which a recap is drawn below (1):
The hostage-rescue operation at Entebbe: Just before 9 a.m on Sunday, June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 with 228 passengers on board left Lod Airport (Ben-Gurion Airport International Airport) near Tel Aviv, Israel, bound for Paris, France with an unscheduled layover at Athens, Greece. This commercial flight was hijacked by 4 passengers barely eight minutes after it took off at 12:25 p.m from Ellinikon International Airport, Athens from where the 4 hijackers (transit passengers travelling on fake passports who had arrived that morning from Bahrain on Singapore Airlines without any intention of going to Paris), boarded the aircraft with concealed guns and hand grenades taking advantage of the lax in security measures. Since 38 passengers had alighted and 56 boarded at Athens, the flight was then carrying 246 passengers plus the crew of 12. The passengers were informed that the flight was under the command of the Che Guevara Group and Gaza Unit of the PFLP. It was the first hijacking in the history of Air France.
Cutting across the Mediterranean Sea, the hijacked Airbus A300B4S aircraft’s wheels brushed the tarmac of Benina International Airport, Benghazi, Libya, and seven hours later, it took off from there after topping up its fuel and leaving behind a British-born Israeli citizen with symptoms of a miscarriage. No sooner had the flight set on a different course and the radio transmissions ceased from the Airbus, the alert and first reports reached Israel where the Cabinet was in its weekly meeting. While a liaison office to co-ordinate with the hostages’ families was arranged at the Lod airport, intelligence officials were frantically collecting all information and as more developments became known, various possibilities and steps for the release of hostages were being explored.
After a five hour flight, and having been refused permission to land at Khartoum, Sudan, the twin-engined Airbus finally trundled to a standstill on the landing-strip of the Entebbe International Airport at about 0330hrs (Monday, June 28) where the hostages had to wait nearly nine hours inside the aircraft before they were hustled into the main lounge of the disused old terminal building which was soon securely surrounded by the Ugandan troops.
The woman, who was left at Benghazi and flown to England by evening, confirmed that the Airbus was taken over by two South Americans and their two accomplices. It would be later established that the blond-haired man checked-in as Peruvian A. Garcia, was in fact a German called Wilfried Böse, a member of a German Revolutionary cell, while the Ecuadorian woman travelling as Ortega, was Böse‘s former German lover Brigitte Kuhlmann (2) of RZ. Their comrades were of Middle East origin. At Entebbe, the hijackers reinforced their team with the arrival of more associates which would also allow them to work in shifts. President Idi Amin of Uganda, after visiting the hostages, made it known that he offered his services in the sympathetic role of a mediator and hoped the wishes of the hijackers would be accepted.
The demands for the exchange of the hostages was the release of 53 political prisoners held in jails in Israel (40), Kenya (6), France (1), West Germany (5) and Switzerland (1). To deliver the prisoners to Entebbe, the deadline was set for 11.00 am GMT of Thursday, July 1.
On Tuesday, June 29, having moved the Israeli citizens/Jewish passengers of other nationalities to an adjoining room, the captors released 47 non-Jewish passengers, allowing them to fly to Paris on Wednesday on an Air France airplane.
As the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) looked into the feasibility of several alternative military options, they were grappling with the lack of fresh, credible and reliable intelligence information. For starters, specialists of the planning group had prior knowledge about the Entebbe airport and the merits of the Ugandan troops. Not only had Israeli experts helped train those troops, constructions in the Entebbe airport, including the old terminal building, were done by an Israeli construction firm and they had detailed architectural drawings. On the surface, the impending odds lay in the difficulty of retrieving the large group of hostages which would occasion an eight hour flight through the radar range of other countries and the inevitable refuelling of the aircrafts for their trip back home.
Meanwhile giving in to the mounting plea from the families of the hostages, the captors were made known of the intention of Israel to talk. To facilitate arrangements for the exchange, the deadline was postponed to 11:00 a.m. GMT of Sunday, July 4. Soon, selected 101 non-Jewish hostages were allowed by the hijackers to fly out to Paris. The Air France Flight Captain Michel Bacos, claiming responsibility for all passengers of his flight, chose to stay with the remaining 94 Jewish hostages, a decision welcomed voluntarily by his crew (3).
A passenger, who was amongst the 101 hostages released, provided valuable information about how the hostages were kept under guard and the strength of the Ugandan guards at the airport. It was also welcoming to know that the rest of Entebbe airport was operating normally and scheduled flights were still flying in and out.
Intervention through a possible military option called for the element of surprise, an absolute necessity to deny captors any time to harm the hostages. Opportunities don’t happen, you create them. The possibility of sky-dropping troops into Lake Victoria, spread wide at about 69,000 Sq km and touching on Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, had to be abandoned owing to the lake’s shallow waters (only 100m deep) infested with crocodiles and rampant of Bilharzia. Besides, its shores were then hide-outs for snails which are the host for the parasitic flukes harmful to the body.
Before long, a suitable but daring ‘long-arm option’ for rescue was found feasible to rescue the hostages remaining in the terminal. Named: Operation Thunderbolt, the mission will be under the overall command of Brig. Gen. Dan Shomron. Two days before the deadline, a British-Israeli hostage named Dora Bloch had to be removed to Mulago General Hospital in Kampala when a piece of food accidently stuck in her throat.
With preparations for military option on, a 100-strong rescue team was drawn up from several IDF units including the elite troops. To support the intricate planning and rehearsal drill for the operation, a partial replica of the Entebbe terminal building, based on the blueprints from the construction firm, was immediately constructed. As weapons and gadgets for operational efficiency and safety were decided upon and coordinated, the disembarkation and embarkation procedures were rehearsed on a Hercules aircraft.
Four tactical Lockheed C130 Hercules transport aircrafts, recently purchased from the United States, which have the manoeuvrability and the range, would be deployed with specific assignments. Each soldier all sparked up and in full webbing, would play a critical role. The first Hercules would carry a black Mercedes car, two Land Rovers, a paratrooper force and IDF’s elite Special Forces assault team led by Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the unit’s recently appointed commander.
Rolling off the back cargo door of the Hercules, the “break-in crew” riding in the Mercedes and Land Rovers with Colgate air of confidence were expected to pass through the Ugandan airfield without resistance assuming they would be taken for President Amin and his entourage. Through access doors 3 and 4 of the seven points of entry of the old terminal they would storm the lounge where the hostages were held. Once inside, they will eliminate any resistance, free the hostages and secure the building. At the same time, unit members will also neutralise the control tower, its radar room and the machine-gun nest near it.
The other three Hercules aircrafts scheduled to land in close succession five to seven minutes later would be accorded protection on the ground by the units of the first aircraft, Upon landing, the specific assignments of the units of the three aircrafts included providing cover to secure the aircraft and keep Ugandan troops away; secure the new terminal, the new runway, the refuelling station and the adjoining airfield, and also to destroy the squadrons of MIGs parked on the far side of the airfield. They would also facilitate on-board emergency medical treatments, evacuate any casualties and help hostages to emplane the aircraft. Of the two Boeing 707s forming part of the operation, one would act as an airborne command and control equipped with superlative communications and monitor the on-ground mission and simultaneously maintain link with Tel Aviv where the communication equipment would be tuned to the operation’s wave-band. The second Boeing would serve as a full-fledged infirmary unit.
At 14.30 Saturday July 3, the rescue operation was approved. Operation Thunderbolt commenced that late afternoon at Sharm el-Sheikh, the operation’s “jump-off point” at the southern tip of Sinai where the planes had refuelled, having arrived earlier during the day from Ben-Gurion. To escape detection by radar the formation of C130 Hercules aircrafts equipped with American radar jamming devices flew over the Red Sea at very low altitudes (100 feet above the water and at some places at much lower altitude) and then turned inland over Sudan, flying past Ethiopia and above Kenya to approach Entebbe from over Lake Victoria, covering a distance of about 2,500 miles (4,000 km), the first 1000 miles of which was accorded fighter cover by their Mirages and Phantoms.
Wheels on ground at Entebbe at about one minute past midnight Uganda time, things went wrong even before the team could reach the old terminal 2.4kms away. Two commandos of the front vehicle had to shoot down an armed Ugandan soldier with their silenced .22 caliber Berettas. When the wounded soldier unexpectedly got back on his feet and took aim to shoot, reacting to a perceived threat, a commando in a Land Rover neutralized him with a long burst from his Kalashnikov. The resultant sound of the gunfire sacrificed the much required element of surprise. However, in less than an hour from touchdown of the first Hercules, the mission was successfully achieved liberating 102 hostages and crew and finally the last of the rescue aircrafts had wheels up and departed from Entebbe, marking a dramatic victory in the operation.
The casualties included the death of all the hijackers and their accomplices, at least twenty Ugandan soldiers and three hostages.
The best men are so often the first to be killed, because they are in front. Fatally shot in the back by a Ugandan soldier from the control tower, Lt. Col. Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu was declared dead (4) by the time the rescuers reached Nairobi, Kenya, from where, after refuelling, they all flew back to a military airfield in Tel Aviv for a rousing reunion with their families.
Dora Bloch (age 73), the passenger on her way to New York for her son’s wedding who was admitted to hospital in Kampala earlier was reportedly killed in Uganda later (5) in reprisal to the successful rescue operation planned and effected within a short space of time surmounting many odds amidst tremendous tension. Fair enough, the operation was subsequently re-named: Operation Yoni (MIVTSA YONATAN) in honour of Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu.
On July 11, the Sunday following the rescue, Ms. Rina Messinger, a 20-year old aerodynamics instructor was crowned as Miss Universe 1976. Coming on the wake of the victory at Entebbe airport, a source of pride and inspiration, she was happily dubbed “Miss Entebbe” by her jubilant countrymen. From pictures I could see that she certainly looked really pretty when she smiled.
Until next time. Jo
- Several authoritative books are available about the Entebbe rescue operation.
- The woman hijacker is named as Gabrielle Kroecher-Tiedemann in some films and in the book Counter Strike Entebbe by Tony Williamson.
- Captain Bacos was honoured with the Legion of Honour while his crew were awarded with the French Order of Merit.
- Yonatan Netanyahu was buried in Mount Herzl National Cemetery, Jerusalem
- The remains of Dora Bloch, recovered near a Sugar Plantation 20 miles east of Kampala, were shifted to Israel on June 3, 1979, and were buried with state honours in Mount of Quietudes, (Har HaMenuchot Cemetery) Jerusalem.
- The subject is featured in the documentary Operation Thunderbolt – Entebbe (2000) and in movies Follow Me – The Yoni Netanyahu Story (2012): and in The Last King of Scotland (One Episode in 2006)
- Most of the movies and books referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
- Books/DVD sleeves credits: amazon.com, en.wikipedia and from my private collection.
- This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to movies of the past. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
- This article is dedicated to the defenders of peace – the fallen and the living.
(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)