Operation Thunderbolt – The Plan I


Yoni Netanyahu was one of Israel’s most esteemed soldiers.

A map of Entebbe Airport on display at a press conference in Israel following Operation Entebbe in which, Israeli special forces rescued 100 hostages held, after a hijacking, at Entebbe Airport in Uganda by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine on 3rd July 1976. The planning of the raid was aided by the fact that the airport had been built by an Israeli construction firm and blueprints were available in Israel. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Entebbe Airport.





As the hostages slept, Ehud Barak’s seven-man ad hoc operations group was working through the night at the Kirya to come up with a military solution to the hijacking. Telephones rang constantly as information flowed into Barak’s office. Visitors included an engineer from the Israeli construction company Solel Boneh who arrived clutching the original plans for Entebbe Airport, and senior air force officers who had spent time in Uganda as flight trainers and pilots of the short-lived Israel–Uganda shuttle. The latter told Barak everything they could about the airport, other air bases in the country and Idi Amin’s air force.

Other vital information was gleaned from an international directory of airports, notably the location of Entebbe’s New Terminal in relation to its old one, and the presence of a new runway for the MiG fighters given to Amin by the Libyans.

All this enabled the planners to come up with ideas that were either rejected by the others or gradually refined. Subtly directed by Barak, and fuelled by endless cups of tea and coffee, the brainstorming went on all night. But again and again they were faced with ‘holes in the intelligence’, the largest of which was Amin’s role in the hijacking. Was he colluding with the terrorists or genuinely trying to help? They suspected the former. They knew that Amin was due to attend an upcoming meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Mauritius, his last as chairman, and felt that the hijacking gave him just what he wanted–an international stage. His statements to the press, meanwhile, were non-committal: promising the hostages’ safety on the one hand; and urging Israel to agree to the terrorists’ demands on the other.

Muki Betser was not alone that ‘long first night’ in feeling a ‘tremendous responsibility’ for the safety of the hostages. Yet all were convinced that an exchange of prisoners would not only be a humiliation for Israel but ‘a victory for terrorists everywhere’.

By dawn, Barak’s team had moved down into the underground Pit to put flesh on the bones of four possible plans, none without disadvantages, and all dependent upon surprise. Their favourite was a combined operation for members of the Unit and the navy’s Shayetet 13 to parachute into Lake Victoria with Zodiac inflatable boats, and then march the short distance from the shore to the Old Terminal at Entebbe where they would kill the terrorists and release the hostages. Only then would they hand themselves over to the Ugandans in the hope that they would arrange their repatriation. The weakness of this plan was that it assumed ‘Amin wanted a rescue to relieve him of responsibility’.

The second plan–also suggested by Gur at the meeting with Peres the night before–was for an assault force to fly to Kenya and then use boats to cross Lake Victoria to the shore near Entebbe. It was dependent not only upon Amin’s cooperation, but also upon that of the Kenyans who, like the rest of the OAU, had had no official diplomatic relations with Israel since the Yom Kippur War. Unofficially, however, the two countries still had close security links as proven by the recent cooperation between the Mossad and Kenyan security forces to prevent three members of Wadie Haddad’s PFLP from using Russian hand-held surface-to-air missiles (SAM-7s) to shoot down an El Al jet as it landed at Nairobi International Airport, en route from Johannesburg to Tel Aviv, in January 1976. The terrorists were caught in the act, thanks to information given by Mossad agents based in Nairobi to the Kenyan internal security police, the General Service Unit (GSU), and a second pair of West German suspects–sent to Kenya to find out why the attack had failed–were captured later that week. All five were on the list of ‘freedom fighters’ the terrorists at Entebbe wanted released from Kenyan jails in return for the hostages. What the PFLP did not realize, however–and the Israeli government was not about to tell them–was that shortly after the arrests the Kenyan authorities had allowed the Mossad to fly the five in secret back to Israel where they later stood trial. This all augured well, of course, for an operation launched from Kenya.

The third plan–suggested by Muki Betser–was a variation on General Adam’s: but instead of luring the terrorists to Israel, which all agreed was an unlikely scenario, the surprise assault would take place at Entebbe by soldiers masquerading as Palestinian prisoners. They would, moreover, be flown in an IAF Boeing painted in Air France livery, and by military pilots disguised as civilians. Once again, however, the success of the mission would require Amin’s cooperation.

The final plan–and arguably the least favoured at this stage The final plan–and arguably the least favoured at this stage–was the so-called ‘IDF Option’ put forward by Colonel Ran Bag of the Infantry and Paratroop Command. Keen for his own soldiers of the Golani and Tzanchanim (Paratroop) Brigades to be involved, Bag wanted to use a force large enough to overawe the Ugandans so that the Unit’s assault force could rescue the hostages. He envisaged a strike force of at least a thousand men. But unlike Air Force commander Peled’s original suggestion for these troops to be dropped by parachute, Bag wanted the Hercules C-130 transport planes to land so that they could later fly the hostages to safety. The plan had the advantage of relying on neither the Ugandans nor the Kenyans. On the other hand its very size would increase the likelihood of detection as its planes flew within radar–and fighter–range of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, three countries sworn to destroy Israel; and it would need both time and access to Entebbe’s fuel tanks so that its planes could return to Israel.

That the IAF was capable of landing planes unnoticed at Entebbe, Major Ido Embar was not in any doubt. ‘Believe me,’ he told the others, ‘I live on an air force base. I know what I’m talking about. If a plane manages to avoid radar detection up to its landing, it could land and come to a quiet halt at the end of a runway without anybody noticing.’

0630hrs GMT, Tel Aviv, Israel

‘What have you come up with?’ asked Defence Minister Shimon Peres.

Gur explained that his planners were still recommending a seaborne assault–either from a paradrop into Lake Victoria or by troops crossing from the Kenyan shore–and that once the terrorists were dead the commandos would withdraw. The risk, quickly identified by Peres, was that the Ugandans would then take out their frustrations on the defenceless hostages. But an even more serious obstacle was that both operations would take a minimum of thirty-six hours to prepare. With the ultimatum due to expire at 2 p.m. Israeli time the following day, there simply was not enough time.

They discussed the alternative plans–including Peled’s preference for flying enough soldiers to Entebbe to take over the airport and the town–but none satisfied Peres or met with Gur’s approval. An added complication was a report from Uganda that Amin had deployed an entire battalion of troops to guard the hostages. Would they put up a fight? And what about the building that was housing the hostages? Had it been booby-trapped? They simply ‘did not know enough to mount a military operation–especially an operation whose success would depend, above all, on surprise’.

0900hrs GMT, Tel Aviv, Israel

Once the meeting with Peres and the other IDF generals had finished, air force chief Benny Peled returned to his own headquarters building in the Kirya to continue planning a possible rescue mission. Of all the senior commanders, he was the most convinced that a military strike was feasible. ‘The only danger,’ he told senior members of his staff, ‘is if they open fire on the planes. I think that the risks are reasonable. I don’t believe that we are exaggerating. It’s within normal range for a Hercules.’

‘There could be a problem of discovery by radar en route,’ suggested a member of his staff.

‘No,’ said Peled, shaking his head. ‘The problem isn’t radar, but rather what the enemy will do with the information he receives–if he receives it! Let’s assume for a moment that we are picked up by radar in Uganda–or anywhere else on the way to Entebbe. What will they do? What will they think? The last thing that will come to mind is that these are Israeli planes on their way to rescue hostages from Entebbe. But we must make sure that the chances of being discovered en route, and particularly in the target area, are reduced to the barest possible minimum.

1330hrs GMT, Tel Aviv, Israel

With time running out, Kuti Adam sent out urgent orders for two officers just back from the Sinai to report to his office in the Kirya. The first to arrive was Colonel Shai Tamari, the deputy chief of the Special Operations Division. Briefed on the progress made so far by Ehud Barak’s team, Tamari was told to set up a separate team to ‘collect together the action ideas’ for a mission at Entebbe ‘and organize them into a plan’. Similar instructions were given to Brigadier-General Dan Shomron, the chief of the Infantry and Paratroop Command, who, like Tamari, had just returned to Tel Aviv. Adam’s intention was, in effect, to set up three separate teams in competition with each other in the hope that at least one would come up with a viable operation. Tamari, however, was given overall responsibility for coordinating the plans.

The objective of the teams, as outlined by Adam, was to ‘rescue the hostages and exterminate the terrorists and anyone who disrupts the execution of the operation’, such as Ugandan soldiers. The problems that needed to be overcome included: missing details about the airport, including the exact location of where the hostages were being held, their guarding arrangements and so on; the problem of refuelling the C-130 transport planes, given that only two ‘were capable of flying there and back without refuelling, and this with only a small number of soldiers’; and the extent to which the Ugandans were involved in the hijacking.

But the assumption, at this stage, was ‘that once the terrorists are killed the Ugandans would release the hostages’. With that in mind, the favoured option was still ‘to free the hostages by killing the terrorists, and leaving them and the operation troops in Entebbe’.

Barak’s team hoped to achieve this by paradropping Zodiac inflatables and soldiers from the Unit and Shayetet 13 into Lake Victoria. To prepare for this they scheduled a practice jump into the Mediterranean for Wednesday afternoon. ‘We’re leaving tonight,’ Betser told one of his squad commanders. ‘Get ready for a sortie that includes a flight, a drop and swimming freestyle among alligators.’ But the Unit’s drop was cancelled after some of the naval commandos’ Zodiacs exploded on impact, and thereafter they concentrated on the three remaining plans: ‘stealing across Lake Victoria from Kenya; pretending to be a civilian plane carrying the free international terrorists in a negotiated exchange; or as Benny Peled suggested from the start–airlifting a thousand troops to Entebbe’.

The latter option did not convince Muki Betser. ‘But it’s too many,’ he kept saying to his fellow planners. ‘If we want to keep the element of surprise on our side, we need to arrive in a more compact formation. The more elements involved in the mission, the more likely something will go wrong.’ Meanwhile Betser kept his absent commanding officer, Yoni Netanyahu, constantly updated on the discussions in the Pit. ‘Listen,’ he told him by phone that evening, ‘the chances of this going through are pretty slim.’

‘Is it worth my coming?’ asked Netanyahu.

‘I don’t think so. Believe me, what you’re doing now is much more important. The Unit’s represented here, and outside of us sitting here and planning, there’s absolutely nothing going on. In any case, I’m keeping you posted.’

As the debate over the most effective plan continued, word reached Israel via radio reports from Uganda and Paris that the terrorists had agreed to release some of the hostages ‘as a gesture of goodwill’. None of them, however, was Israeli. They had been separated from the others and were being kept in Uganda. The news was for Betser and his colleagues both a worry and an opportunity. It reminded them of Nazi methods and was proof that Israel was now ‘alone’.

On the other hand, it was obvious that the freed hostages might be able to provide important intelligence and it was decided to send a trusted officer to Paris to interview them. The natural choice was Major Amiram Levine, Military Intelligence’s director of operations and a man who had risen through the ranks of the Unit. He ‘understood intuitively’ the team’s ‘planning needs for a break-in at the airport’ and could be trusted to know ‘what to ask to get the answer’ it needed.

Before catching the early-evening El Al flight to Paris, Levine changed into civilian clothes and was provided with an intelligence kit by Amnon Biran. It included a list of the ‘essential information’ that the team required and a set of drawings based on the Solel Boneh blueprints of Entebbe Airport. He was also given strict instructions to avoid being seen in Paris by General ‘Gandhi’ Ze’evi, who had been sent there from London to coordinate the diplomatic efforts to free the hostages. If Ze’evi spotted Levine at Orly Airport he ‘would immediately understand that a military option was being planned’ and that might affect his judgement during the negotiations and possibly alert the French. ‘No matter what,’ Levine was told, ‘don’t let Gandhi see you.’

1900hrs GMT, Glilot, Israel

Following his meeting with Adam, Brigadier-General Dan Shomron was keen to begin planning a possible rescue. But first he had to fulfil a longstanding engagement to interview newly graduated officers of the IDF Command and Staff College at Glilot, north of Tel Aviv, for posts in his command. To save time after the interviews, therefore, he summoned his planning group to meet at the college at 9 p.m. There were three men present: Shomron and Lieutenant-Colonels Ivan Oren and Amnon Biran, both of whom had attended the earlier planning meetings chaired by Ehud Barak. Neither they nor Shomron were convinced by Barak’s preferred plan to ‘parachute 12 fighters into Lake Victoria’ from where they would ‘get on to dinghies, reach the terminal, enter and kill the terrorists, and then we’d see what would happen’.

Shomron’s chief objection was that there were ‘two points with no answers: the one is the idea to sneak in through the swamps–indeed if someone gets spotted there’s a lot of time to kill all the hostages, and then there are these twelve stuck there. The second issue is the question of evacuation. How will an evacuation be done while Idi Amin is not cooperating with us and there are Ugandan soldiers all around the terminal?’ It was, he felt, ‘a dud of a plan’.

It took two hours for Shomron, Oren and Biran to sketch out their own ‘operational concept’: they envisaged landing the IAF’s two refuelling Hercules–with the ability to fly to Uganda and back–on the new runway from where an assault force would use ‘innocent-looking vehicles that would fit in with the setting of the airport’ to reach the Old Terminal, surprise and kill the terrorists and free the hostages. The intention was for the hostages to return to Israel on board the IAF’s two tankers, though they needed to check with the IAF if it was possible to fly a Peugeot pick-up in a refuelling Hercules and return with the assault team and more than 200 hostages.

2200hrs GMT, Tel Aviv, Israel

As Ivan Oren finished speaking, his superior Colonel Shai Tamari leaned back in his chair. Tamari had spent the last thirty minutes of the meeting in his office in the Kirya listening to Oren sketch out the rescue mission that he had cooked up a couple of hours earlier with Shomron and Biran: a plan that hinged on the use of the IAF’s two refuelling Hercules to fly a rescue force and vehicles to Entebbe and return with the hostages.

‘It has possibilities,’ said Tamari after a pause, ‘but it needs more work. At the moment it sounds vague and half baked. You still don’t know, for example, about the carrying capacity of a Karnaf tanker [refuelling Hercules] and whether it can bear the extra load that you envisage. Then there’s the question of whether the Uganda troops are likely to be hostile or not. If they are, can the tankers carry enough of our troops to deal with them, and still have room to bring back the hostages? This is the sort of fine detail we have to be certain about before we can push this plan upstairs. Understand?’

Oren nodded. Though a little crestfallen, he could see the sense of Tamari’s words.

‘Flesh it out and bring it back to me tomorrow morning.’

‘Yes, sir.’




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