This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Raid on Entebbe, when Israel mounted a rescue mission to Uganda with four C-130 Hercules transports, helping to free more than 100 hostages.
The audacity and success of this rescue was unmatched in its time, and since then has been imitated but never surpassed. Over the course of this week, I’ll be writing about these events including how the Israelis came to be able to execute the raid, and coverage of the raid on paper and on the screen.
The events that led to the raid began on 27 June 1976, when Air France Flight 139 – an Airbus A300 carrying 248 passengers and 12 crew – was travelling from Tel Aviv to Paris via a stopover in Athens. Shortly after its departure from Athens, two German and two Palestinian hijackers took over the aircraft, re-directing the crew to fly to Libya.
When the hijacking of Flight 139 occurred, there was seemingly little to differentiate it from those that preceded it (or indeed, several that followed after). The hijackers demanded the release of prisoners from Israel and a number of European countries. Having landed in Libya, the aircraft was refueled, a hostage was released (she had feigned a miscarriage), and the aircraft took off – this time, heading for Entebbe Airport, located on the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda.
Entebbe is where the hijacking of Flight 139 begins to differentiate itself. Several previous hijackings led the aircraft to be flown to Middle East or Mediterranean states, resulting in extended and successful negotiations, or rescue raids against the aircraft. During a hijacking of a Sabena airliner in May 1972 by the Black September terrorist organization, the aircraft was flown to Tel Aviv, allowing Israel was able to mount a successful rescue of the hostages. Four years later, the hijackers of Flight 139 transported their hostages well outside of the West’s sphere of influence – much less the reach of Israel – in a well-calculated move.
Late on June 27, the Airbus touched down at Entebbe Airport, and the hostages were herded into the Airport’s Old Terminal building, where four more Palestinians joined the hijackers. Soon after, a new partner in the crisis arrived. To use his full title ‘His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular’ toured the hostages at the Entebbe with his entourage and cameras. Initially, Idi Amin presented himself as just as much the victim of the hijacking’s circumstance as the passengers, pleading for the West (and Israel in particular) to meet the demands for their release, and bring the crisis to a peaceful conclusion.
Amin had once been close to Israel, trained with their military and embracing them when he came to power in a military coup in 1971. The following year however, the Israelis were expelled from Uganda. When the Air France A300 arrived in his country in 1976, Amin had seemingly embraced the hijacker’s cause, with his ego providing the motive. Through the crisis, Amin could present himself as a regional and global negotiator, and embarrass the West through its inability to act without him. In all conversations with the Israelis, Amin said he was helpless to act against the hijackers, despite it being clear that the crisis could not have without Amin being in some way complicit in the plan. He argued the only recourse for Israel would have to be to negotiate with him, making him a hero if all hostages were exchanged for prisoners peacefully. Much like the hijackers, Amin couldn’t conceivably think Israel would mount a rescue mission.
As the crisis played out, 148 hostages would be released to the West, leaving 107 – predominantly Jewish and Israeli passengers, along with the Air France crew – in the Entebbe Old Terminal building. There is a question that had the entire complement of hostages been retained, how Israel and the West would managed negotiations, let alone a rescue. A security perimeter of Ugandan troops had been established around the Old Terminal, also in a nearby Air Traffic Control tower. All the while, civilian airliners continued their scheduled flights through Entebbe around the clock.
Israel’s negotiations centred on Amin, rather than meeting the demands of the hijackers. This would ultimately feed information into their operational planning for a rescue mission. The initial Israeli response called for an Air Force Boeing 707 to be disguised as an Air France airliner, and seemingly conduct a handover of prisoners for hostages at Entebbe. The prisoners however would be a force of Sayeret Matkal (Israeli Special Forces) troops who would mount a rescue raid. Other plans involved the delivery of Sayeret Matkal troops into Lake Victoria, leaving them to swim ashore and mount a raid; and airdropping a force of about 1,000 paratroops into Entebbe, and taking over the airport.
The rescue options were refined as the intelligence picture was grown, built on interviews with freed hostages, information from Israeli military leaders who knew Amin intimately (including through their negotiations with him by phone), pictures from spy flights by light aircraft flown out of Kenya, and the architectural designs of the airport. Construction of the Entebbe Old Terminal had been managed by Israeli firms who still owned the blueprints. Whilst the hijackers had believed flying the hostages to Idi Amin’s Uganda would make a rescue mission insurmountable, what they had really did was provide just the thinnest of threads for Israel to consider launching a raid.
By 2 July 1976, the Israelis had settled on a plan, and conducted mission rehearsals. At its heart would be four C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, whose availability to launch the mission came thanks in large part to the Arab-initiated 1973 Yom Kippur War. In 1970, Israel had identified a need to acquire the C-130 for its Air Force, but a leisurely acquisition pace meant only two were in service in 1973. The Yom Kippur War illustrated just how essential the C-130 was to Israel as a logistical link to the frontline, and soon more than two dozen were acquired. By 1976, the size of the fleet and their combat experience meant the Israeli Air Force – in particular, its C-130 squadrons – had the confidence and maturity to launch a rescue raid.
On 3 July 1976, the Israeli Government gave the go-ahead for a rescue raid, using four C-130s, joined by pair of Boeing 707s – one acting as a Command-and-Control (C2) aircraft, the other as an Aero-Medical Evacuation (AME) transport. The first Hercules landed at Entebbe shortly before midnight on July 3, and the assault was all over in 30 minutes. I’ll cover the detail of the raid in a following Post, but the four Hercules landed at Entebbe to deliver a force of Sayeret Matkal and Israeli Paratroopers. The hijackers were eliminated, a number of Ugandan troops killed, and a squadron of MiG fighters at Entebbe were destroyed. In return, four of hostages were killed during the assault and its wake, which also claimed the life of Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, leading the raid on the ground.
The C-130s and the C2 Boeing 707 headed for Nairobi in Kenya, where they rendevouzed with the AME team on the Boeing 707 and also refueled their aircraft. As the rescue force returned to Israel at daybreak on July 4, a number of things had become apparent.
The way in which Israel had demonstrated the integration of Special Forces with air mobility platforms – coupled with airborne C2 and AME assets – wasn’t so much as ‘ahead of its time’ as it was pioneering. I’ll explore this theme in the next Post, but there’s little coincidence that both the United States and United Kingdom planned similar raids in the six years following Entebbe. For the German left-wing factions and Palestinians, they would use airline hijacking as a tool for negotiating the release of prisoners again in 1978. Lufthansa Flight 181, bound from West Germany for Spain, was taken on an odyssey by the hijackers through Europe and the Middle East before it settled on Mogadishu, Somalia. While the hijackers seemingly hoped that they were beyond the reach of a German rescue effort, the Somali government permitted a German rescue team to launch a rescue mission that eliminated the hijackers.
For Amin, the events at Entebbe were an embarrassment, albeit one that saw him attempt to present the Israelis as the belligerents. In the weeks following the raid, several thousand Kenyans – living within Uganda or along the border – are believed to have been killed as a reprisal against Kenya’s complicit support to Israel. Whether you can place any guilt for their deaths at the feet of Israel is a good debate topic, however it is clear that Amin held little regard of the value of the lives of his own people, a fact that would see him deposed in 1979.
After four decades, the Raid on Entebbe still retains some valued lessons in how governments can respond to emerging crises, what the considerations are, and what their consequences may be.
*Edits to this post will be made as required, and any corrections of fact are welcomed.