OPERATION THUNDERBOLT: FLIGHT 139 AND THE RAID ON ENTEBBE AIRPORT, THE MOST AUDACIOUS HOSTAGE RESCUE MISSION IN HISTORY by Saul David

(Well wishers at Ben-Gurion Airport to welcome the return of hostages from Entebbe)

After recent events in Paris and San Bernardino the world’s heightened awareness of possible terrorist attacks has been raised ever further.  We have all heard about failed attempts to blow up airplanes by the “shoe bomber,” and the “underwear bomber,” and of course 9/11.  We live in a world where fears of flying have increased, but it is not a unique feeling as is evidenced by Saul David’s new book OPERATION THUNDERBOLT: FLIGHT 139 AND THE RAID ON ENTEBBE AIRPORT, THE MOST AUDACIOUS HOSTAGE RESCUE MISSION IN HISTORY that recounts the hijacking of Air France’s Flight 139 on June 27, 1976 originating in Tel Aviv, with a stopover in Athens and a final destination in Paris.  The flight spawned the Israeli rescue of 102 people out of an original total of 253 passengers and flight crew after the plane was diverted from Athens, where the hijackers boarded and forced the pilots to fly to Benghazi, Libya before proceeding to Entebbe Airport outside Kampala, Uganda.  The reader should remember that the hijacking of Flight 139 was not an isolated event as the 1970s witnessed terror attacks across Britain and Ireland, as well as those related to the Middle East and Africa.   At the time Uganda was led by the dictator Dr. Idi Amin Dada, a former paratrooper in the British army, who had come to power by a coup in 1971, and was in cahoots with the hijackers.    Like today, the passengers of Flight 139 were quite aware of a possible terrorist attack if the plane stopped in Athens, but like most, they threw caution to the wind resulting in the Israeli raid and the death of four of the hostages, one Israeli commando, Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 45 Ugandan soldiers and the hijackers.

(Defense Minister Shimon Peres congratulating Israeli Defense Force members for their successful raid)

The plane was seized by an offshoot of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group that had pioneered the hijacking of airplanes as a means of striking Israel, which did not bode well for a passenger list dominated by Jews and Israelis. David present a day by day, and at times, hour by hour description of the hijacking allowing the reader to enter the mindset of the passengers as the plane was seized, flown to Entebbe, and their incarceration in the old terminal at the airport.  We witness the feelings and emotions of the hostages as they were separated by Jews/Israelis and others, and as they dealt with the release of 40 hostages, then another 100 or so, leaving just Jews and Israelis to face their fate.  The hostages go through many highs and lows during their detention and David provides many insights into how they tried to cope with their situation.  David takes the reader inside the Israeli government as they debated their response to terrorist demands for the release of 53 prisoners, 40 of which were held in Israel and other countries.  What emerges is a major disagreement between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who favored negotiations with the terrorists if a military response was not available, and Defense Minister Shimon Peres, who advocated for a rescue mission and no negotiations.  Rabin was placed in a quandary because he wanted to limit concessions but there was a precedent for a prisoner swap dating back to the Yom Kippur War when Israel traded imprisoned terrorists for Israeli war corpses.  Feeling the pressure of the hostage’s families, how could Israel not trade prisoners for people that were alive?

(Lt. Colonel Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was killed leading the raid on Entebbe)

David presents a detailed description of how the Israeli intelligence community and military ferreted out information and went about planning the rescue mission.  We meet a number of important characters led by Major Muki Bester, the head of Sayeret Matkal (the Unit), Israel’s most efficient reconnaissance unit that had previously trained Ugandan soldiers, Yoni Netanyahu, the Unit commander, Brigadier-General Dan Shomron, one of the major architects of the rescue, Lieutenant-Colonel Ehud Barak, another Unit commander and future Prime Minister of Israel among numerous others.  The major problem that military planners faced was refueling.  The Hercules C-130 airplanes needed to refuel because of the distance between Israel and Kampala, in addition, the weight of equipment and soldiers made it impossible for the planes to fly roundtrip.  After a few tense days, the Kenyan government agreed to allow the Israeli planes to refuel in Nairobi because the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence arm had foiled an attempted shoot down of an El Al airliner over Nairobi Airport, and their desire to get even with Amin who was smuggling weapons across the Kenyan-Ugandan border.  The key to the crisis came on July 2 when Amin, who enjoyed the attention, announced that the deadline for a decision regarding the prisoner swap would be extended three days while he chaired a meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Mauritius.  This gave the Israeli military a window to plan, train, and implement a rescue attempt.

(Ugandan dictator, Dr. Idi Amin Dada, who cooperated with the Palestinian and German hijackers)

David provides an almost minute by minute account of the raid from takeoff in Sharm el-Sheik at Israel’s southern tip all the way to Entebbe.  As the first Hercules landed things did not go as planned as Netanyahu insisted on taking out two Ugandan sentries, thus forgoing the element of surprise. However, the IDF was able to improvise, and in the end the raid was an overall success.  All the terrorists were killed, as were numerous Ugandan soldiers, but with five casualties, including a number of wounded.  Once the hostages were secure as part of their agreement with the Kenyan government the Israelis destroyed 11 Soviet Migs of the Ugandan air force parked in front of the old terminal as a concession to the Kenyan government for its cooperation.  Once the planes landed in Nairobi, they were refueled and the wounded were taken care of.  David provides an aftermath explaining to the reader some of the interesting ramifications of the rescue operation.  As one could have been expected the United Nations condemned Zionist aggression.  Idi Amin had Dora Bloch, an elderly hostage who had been hospitalized and was not freed, was murdered by Amin in an act of revenge.  The French worried about their position in Africa and the Arab world remained very subdued in its public statements following the operation.  Idi Amin was overthrown in 1979 and was provided with a “golden parachute” by the Saudi Arabian government.  Lastly, and most importantly it showed the world what could be done to stop terrorism, and a number of western countries developed their own version of the Unit.

Although the Entebbe raid has been explored by many books, three full length movies, and a number of documentaries, military historian, Saul David has written an engrossing narrative that encapsulates all aspects of the seizure and raid.  David interviewed numerous hostages and has full command of government sources and other materials.  The result is a carefully constructed book that reads like fiction.  The problem is that it is a true story that hopefully will not be repeated in our current climate of fear and terrorist operatives.

(Wounded Israeli hostage carried by stretcher upon arriving in Tel Aviv following the raid on Entebbe)

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