Operation Thunderbolt – The Plan II

0730hrs GMT, Tel Aviv, Israel

While the Israeli government was hoping to end the hostage crisis peacefully, Ehud Barak and his planning team continued their work in the Pit on the assumption that a rescue mission might, at some point, be needed. Their task, however, had been considerably simplified by the arrival that morning of the vital intelligence that Amiram Levine had extracted from the freed hostages in Paris: in particular the news that Amin was collaborating with the terrorists.

It was now obvious to all the planners that most of their schemes–parachuting into Lake Victoria, ships from Kenya and ‘fake identities as Palestinian terrorists aboard a plane painted to look like a civilian jet’–had ‘suddenly became irrelevant’. The only plan that now counted was one that ‘involved landing at the airport, freeing the hostages, and flying out’.

Dan Shomron and his staff had come up with just such a plan the night before, but it had been overtaken by events, and when Shomron repitched the improved version to Kuti Adam himself at 10 a.m. on 1 July it was deemed to be ‘too limited in scope’. What a rescue force now required was the use of a ‘large enough force to kill the terrorists, gain control of the airport and evacuate the hostages, with the troops returning to Israel’. That would require more airlifting power than two Hercules C-130 tankers and, moreover, meant that the planes had to be refuelled.

Coming to this conclusion, Muki Betser went to speak to Colonel Tamari. Having briefed the colonel on the new information from Paris, he suggested ‘dropping everything else’ and working only on a slimmed-down version of the IDF Option. Ran Bag’s original suggestion had been to use 1,000 men. Barak, Betser and the other ex-Unit planners thought that was too many, and that they could do the job with a much smaller, more heavily armed force.

Nodding his assent, Tamari pressed the button on the direct intercom to Kuti Adam. ‘Here’s what we have,’ he said, repeating the argument that the intelligence from Paris had reduced the options to an airlift rescue.

Adam was not entirely convinced. ‘I want a written brief on all four options,’ he said. ‘All four plans, including the failed naval one. I want a concise report on the advantages and disadvantages of each one.’

Tamari said he would have them and at once called in Barak and the rest of the planning team to draw up the briefs, ‘neatly and concisely’ listing all four options, ‘with their pluses and minuses in meticulously drawn columns’. When he had finished he nodded, rose from his seat and ‘announced he was off to see Kuti’.

A few minutes later he was back with Adam’s authorization for the IDF Option. At last the planners ‘could get down to details’.

1400hrs GMT, Tel Aviv, Israel

Armed with Adam’s authorization, Barak and his planners spent much of Thursday morning and early afternoon fleshing out the IDF Option in the war room of the Pit, the warren of underground offices that served as the nerve centre of the Israeli military. The walls were covered with old aerial photos of Entebbe Airport, up-to-date civilian flight paths for East Africa, architectural drawings of the Old Terminal, courtesy of Solel Boneh, and summaries of the intelligence sent from Paris.

Every hour, on the hour, the planners paused to listen to the latest radio news bulletins: the violent demonstrations by the distraught relatives of the hostages; the government’s decision to negotiate; and lastly the terrorists’ decision to extend the deadline, which they cheered because they knew it at least made a military strike possible. And yet not once did anyone in the media even raise the possibility of a rescue: they simply assumed that the distance was too great.

The planners knew better and worked hard to turn a theoretical idea into a feasible operation that both Gur and Rabin were prepared to authorize. Their chief task was to work ‘on the compromise between a discreet airlift that could land unobtrusively, and the need for the firepower necessary to take the airport from the Ugandan army’.

While Ido Embar calculated fuel and cargo loads for the Hercules transports, Muki Betser concentrated on the assault force from the Unit that would travel in the first plane and tackle the terrorists: ‘the landing, the ride to the terminal, the break-in, the elimination of the terrorists, freeing of the hostages and holding the building against Ugandan opposition until the arrival of troops from the second plane’. His task was made considerably easier by the intelligence from Paris which showed that the hostages were all lying down by midnight, and most were sleeping by 1 a.m. That hour gave Betser ‘a cornerstone’ for his timetable.

By mid-afternoon the planners had narrowed the mission down to five Hercules (four for the mission and one in reserve)–the maximum number of crews trained for a night landing in an unfamiliar airport–‘with each plane loaded far past its recommended capacity’. The break-in crews would land in the first plane, ‘take out the terrorists, neutralize any interfering Ugandan troops and hold the old terminal’ until the second Hercules landed seven minutes later with reinforcements, including two Soviet-made armoured personnel carriers known as BTRs that had been captured during the Yom Kippur War. These BTRs were lighter than the IDF’s standard APC and ‘carried plenty of firepower to protect a perimeter around the old terminal building’.

The third and fourth planes would land straight after the second one, and bring in more reinforcements, two more BTRs and medical officers and equipment that could treat up to seventy-five casualties, which was 25 per cent of the total number of hostages and soldiers. That, of course, was a worst-case scenario. They hoped the wounded would not be anything like as numerous.

Though the break-in and rescue would take just seven minutes, the planes needed at least an hour on the ground to refuel from the airport’s underground tanks using mobile hand-operated pumps they would take with them. The alternative was to fly on to Nairobi and refuel there, but confirmation that that was possible had yet to be received from the Kenyans: not least because the Mossad was wary of giving them advance warning of a possible operation in case there was a security leak.

At 4 p.m. Brigadier-General Dan Shomron arrived in the Pit with authorization from Adam to take control of the planning: he was ‘to determine the method of the operation, the quality of the troops and the number of the planes’. A tall, impressive man with blue eyes and a shock of thick curly black hair, Shomron had been born on Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov in the Jordan Valley and, despite his high rank, still retained the humility and quiet confidence of a typical kibbutzim. He preferred simple cooking–eggs, meat and fresh vegetables–to haute cuisine; slacks and a shirt to a suit and tie. His combat record, moreover, was second to none: he had fought as a paratrooper in the Sinai campaign of 1956, he was the first airborne soldier to reach the Suez Canal in 1967 (a feat for which he was awarded the Medal of Distinguished Service), and in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 he commanded an armoured brigade that knocked out no fewer than sixty Egyptian tanks. A year later, at the age of just thirty-seven, he was promoted to brigadier-general and given the prestigious Infantry and Paratroops Command. As that was the formation that would supply the bulk of the soldiers needed for the Entebbe operation, it made sense for Shomron to take the plans to the next stage. His own preference, now, was to return to his deputy Ran Bag’s initial suggestion of a huge airlift of at least a thousand men. It would require, he told Barak and his planners, at least ten planes.

‘Dan,’ responded an exasperated Betser, ‘I think there’s a misunderstanding here. You’re making it sound as if we are going to start planning. We’re almost done with planning. We don’t need hundreds of soldiers. Let us brief you on the essentials of the plan, give you an idea of what we have. Then you can make up your mind.’

Amnon Biran spoke first, summarizing the intelligence available, and was followed by Ido Embar giving details of the flight and arrival (‘We can land the first plane without the Ugandans noticing’), and finally by Betser explaining the assault. ‘If we can reach the terminal in secret,’ he said, picking up where Embar had left off, ‘we can succeed.’

Shomron tilted his head, as if waiting to hear exactly how they would manage that. ‘The break-in force from the Unit,’ continued Betser, ‘will land in the first plane. It’s a mile from the New Terminal building to the old one. We’re going to drive.’

Shomron raised an eyebrow. ‘I know the Ugandan soldiers,’ said Betser by way of explanation, ‘I trained them. We don’t need hundreds of soldiers. Instead we use a Mercedes. Every battalion commander rides around in one. A soldier spots a Mercedes, he snaps to a salute. They’ll see us in the Mercedes with a couple of Land Rovers carrying soldiers, and they’ll assume a general’s about to drive by. They aren’t going to shoot us.’ Betser paused, smiling. ‘You know, it’s possible I’ll run into one of the soldiers I trained.’

‘It’s lucky you trained them for only four months and not four years,’ responded a wit from the back of the room.

Everyone laughed, breaking the tension. But Betser had a serious point to make. ‘While we’re driving to the target, we’ll probably see Ugandan troops, and they’ll probably see us. We can ignore them. Indeed, for the plan to work, we must ignore them, to avoid alerting the terrorists to our arrival. That’s what makes a hostage situation so unique. Our first concern must be eliminating the terrorists–or they’ll start harming the hostages. We’re not going all that way to fight Ugandans. We’re going down there to eliminate the terrorist threat to the hostages.’

After a brief pause, he continued. ‘So even if a Ugandan soldier sees through our disguise, and starts shooting, we should speed on to the terminal, to the break-in. Only then should the back-up force deal with the Ugandans, while the break-in crews do their job. So, to sum up. Five minutes for us to drive across the airfield to the Old Terminal. Two minutes for the break-in. Seven minutes after we landed, the second and third planes come in carrying reinforcements. In an hour we’re all on our way home,’ said Betser optimistically, forgetting the extra time it would take to refuel in Uganda or elsewhere.

As Shomron nodded approvingly, a message arrived from Adam. He wanted to be briefed on the plan so that he could take it to Gur and Peres. ‘Ivan,’ said Shomron to Colonel Oren, ‘grab the maps. Let’s go.’

1800hrs GMT, Ramat Gan, Israel

When Muki Betser arrived at Paratroops House, the clubhouse for off-duty airborne soldiers in Ramat Gan, to the east of Tel Aviv, he found a host of officers gathered for Dan Shomron’s 8 p.m. planning session: Oren, Barak, Biran, Embar, as well as senior commanders from the signals corps, medical corps, Sayeret Golani and Sayeret Tzanchanim. Both these latter units were part of Shomron’s Infantry and Paratroops Command, and had been earmarked to support the Unit’s assault on the Old Terminal. Convinced that the operation would succeed, and become part of Israel’s ‘heritage’, Shomron wanted to give both of these illustrious units, but particularly the Golani, a share in the glory.

The only key officer still absent, at this stage, was Betser’s boss Yoni.

Shomron began the briefing by going over the order of battle ‘from top to bottom, filling in the details of the plan’. As Hercules One taxied down the runway, he explained, ten paratroopers from Colonel Matan Vilnai’s Sayeret Tzanchanim would jump from the side doors and lay electric lanterns along both sides of the runway in case the Ugandans turned off the landing lights.

Then, once Hercules One had come to a halt at the far end of the main runway, the Unit’s break-in teams of thirty-six men, masquerading as Ugandan soldiers, would drive off it in a Mercedes and two Land Rovers and head down the original runway towards the Old Terminal. They would drive with headlights on and at a normal speed so as not to excite suspicion. Ehud Barak was named as the commander of this vital element of the operation. Though no longer a member of the Unit, he was hugely experienced and Shomron trusted him to get the job done. Meanwhile Shomron himself would set up his command post, consisting of a Land Rover and eight men, between the Old and New Terminal buildings.

Seven minutes later, Hercules Two would land with another sixteen men from the Unit aboard two BTR armoured personnel carriers, commanded by Yoni’s former deputy, Major Shaul Mofaz. Their task would be to patrol the perimeter behind the Old Terminal and prevent any Ugandan reinforcements from interfering. The plane would also contain the balance of Vilnai’s sixty-nine paratroopers whose job was to capture the New Terminal building, the nearby filling station and the new control tower.

A minute later, the third Hercules would land with two more BTRs–crewed by another sixteen men from the Unit–and thirty soldiers from Colonel Uri Saguy’s Sayeret Golani. One BTR, commanded by Omer Bar-Lev, was assigned to neutralize the MiG airfield beside the Old Terminal, while the other joined Mofaz on the perimeter. The task of Saguy’s men–some of whom would fly on Hercules Four–was to cover the area between the Old Terminal and the New, support the break-in teams (if they needed it) and use their Peugeot pick-up truck to ferry the hostages to the fourth Hercules.

That last Hercules would carry the lightest load so that there was room for the hostages on the return. It would contain a twelve-man surgical team and its equipment to treat any casualties, both on the ground and on the flight back; ten blue-uniformed air force techies, a portable fuel pump and another Peugeot pick-up to transport them both; and a final detachment of twenty Golani soldiers.

A second bigger medical team in a converted Boeing 707 would–if the necessary permissions were forthcoming–set up a field hospital at Nairobi in Kenya, and would be joined there by the four Hercules if the refuelling option at Entebbe took too long. All Shomron knew at this stage, however, was that discussions were taking place and that refuelling the Hercules transports at Nairobi–not least because of the diplomatic repercussions it might have for the Kenyan government–would be a last resort.

The sixth and last aircraft he mentioned was an IAF Boeing 707 that would act as Adam’s and Peled’s command and control headquarters during the operation, circling the airfield at Entebbe and ferrying ‘real time’ information from the ground back to Rabin, Peres and Gur in the Kirya in Tel Aviv.

Shomron ended the briefing by nominating the Unit’s headquarters near Tel Aviv and an adjacent base as the training locations for all the troops involved. The Unit’s base not only had its own runway, but also had the tightest field security in the IDF. Once inside the bases, only the officers would be allowed out until the operation began. All non-vital phone lines would be disconnected and the remaining few closely monitored.

Shomron had barely finished speaking when a grinning Yoni Netanyahu entered the room. He had come straight from a nearby military airport, having flown up from the Sinai by light plane, and was eager to hear about the role the Unit would play in the rescue operation. As Muki Betser rose from the table to shake his hand, he thought of their shared experiences together–from the capture of the Syrian officers to the Yom Kippur War–and how much he had missed Netanyahu’s calm professionalism.

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