Operation Jonathon (Operation Thunderball) (The Entebbe Raid) 3rd/4th July 1976

The Entebbe Raid is without doubt one of the most daring counter terrorism operations ever conducted and is certainly one of the most famous. The incident began on 27th June when Air France Airbus Flight 137, travelling to Paris from Athens was hijacked by four terrorists, of which two were Palestinians, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and two were Germans members of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang. The aircraft had previously taken off from Israel and over 30% of its 246 passengers were Jewish, the plane also had 12 crew on board.

The Hijackers diverted the plane to Benghazi in Libya where one woman pretended to be pregnant and was released. The plane was then refuelled before travelling onwards to Entebbe in Uganda landing on the morning of the 28th June.  At Entebbe airport the gang was reinforced by three more members of the PFLP and the passengers and crew were transferred into the airport's old terminal building. The terrorists then made their demands on the following day requesting the release of 53 prisoners held in Israel, Germany, France, Kenya and Switzerland. If these demands were not met the terrorists would start killing the hostages at 2pm on the first of July.

This rather grim picture brightened a little the next day (30th June) when the terrorists released 47 passengers (non of whom were Israeli), although some of the remaining hostages were friends of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin so the terrorist position still remained strong. The released hostages were flown to Paris where they were met and questioned by Mossad (Israeli secret service) agents. The debrief of the freed hostages provided vital information, first they provided detailed information on the terminal building and where the hostages were being held and secondly it became clear that the Ugandan soldiers at the airport were aiding the terrorists. Israeli military planners now started to work on a rescue plan although no final decision had been made to try and free the hostages by force. The Israeli authorities now played for time and managed to get the deadline extended until noon on the 4th July and the terrorists freed 101 more hostages. This was a wise move by the terrorists as now the only hostages they had left were the French crew and Israeli and non Israeli Jewish, now in much more manageable numbers, as well as the fact that by releasing hostages it made the likelihood of facing armed intervention less likely in their eyes.

The Israelis now saw a military solution as likely and on the 2nd July Israeli Special Forces rehearsed the rescue. The key would be maintaining the element of surprise, such a large scale rescue had never been done before and once the terrorists realised they were under attack they could kill a great many hostages in a very short space of time. The rescue plan was devised by 30 year old LT Col Yonatan (Jonathan) Netanyahu of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit (whose brother Binyamin would become a future Prime Minister of Israel).

The plan was daring and imaginative and extremely risky. Twenty nine Israeli commandoes would fly the 2,500 miles to Entebbe Airport in four C130 Hercules transports, each leaving Israel in top secret from a different direction, staying below 100ft for most of the eight and half hour flight to avoid being picked up on radar. The commandoes would then try to fool the Terrorists into thinking that the Ugandan President Idi Amin was visiting by approaching in a black Mercedes with Land Rover escorts which Amin favoured while dressed in Ugandan Army uniforms.

The rescue teams touched down about 11pm on 3rd July. As the convoy passed the control Tower two Ugandan sentries tried to stop them and were shot and killed.  With the element of surprise now fading fast the commandoes sped towards the old terminal. The following fire fight was brief (lasting about 36 minutes) and brutal taking place at very close range mostly between 7 to 10 meters during which at some point Lt Col Netanyahu was shot and killed. Three hostages died during the rescue (a fourth who had been released to hospital the day before was later murdered by Ugandans in retaliation); all the terrorists were killed in the raid and over a dozen Ugandan troops out of the 80 guarding the airport also died. The Commandoes also destroyed some Ugandan MIG fighters to prevent any pursuit of the rescued hostages. The operation was originally code named ‘Thunderball’ (or Thunderbolt) but was later renamed to honour the dead Lt Col.

Some conspiracy theories exist about the Raid including one which claims the Hijackers were assisted by the Israelis to damage the PLO’s standing in France and distance them from America, but this seems extremely unlikely and has little evidence. Debate over whether the raid was legal under international law also continues but this rests on whether the Ugandan government was actively aiding the terrorists. Recently released British documents strongly indicate that President Amin did indeed actively support the terrorists. Whatever the truth behind the raid it will certainly go down in history as one of the most daring counter-terrorism operations in history.
How to cite this article: Pointin, T (1 August 2007), Operation Jonathon (Operation Thunderball) (The Entebbe Raid) 3rd/4th July 1976 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_entebbe_raid.html

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