Thursday, April 20, 2017

OPERATION THUNDERBOLT


Air France Airbus A300B4 F-BVGG
Image Courtesy: Wikipedia 

Hijacking
The eight-day ordeal started on June 27, 1976, when Air France flight AF139 an Airbus A300B4 registration F-BVGG, left the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel for Paris with 246 passengers and 12 crew members onboard.

It first landed in Athens, picking more passengers, among them were the four hijackers. Over the Greek airspace the aircraft was hijacked. They were two Palestinians and two Germans. Wilfred Bose and Brigitte Kuhlmann, the Germans, were members of the Germany Revolutionary Cells.

The hijackers wanted to use the hostages as a bait to have the Israel government release 40 Palestinians in its jails and 13 others in other countries.

From Athens, instead of heading to Paris, the plane was commandeered to Entebbe, Uganda, Africa with a stopover at Benghazi in Libya for refuelling.

At Entebbe Airport 
The four hijackers were joined by at least four others, supported by the forces of Uganda's President, Idi Amin. Fearing that the plane may be blown, they moved all the hostages to unused building where they separated the Jewish people from the non-Jews.

On 28 June 1976, a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP-EO) hijacker issued a declaration and formulated their demands:
In addition to a ransom of $5 million USD for the release of the airplane, they demanded the release of 53 Palestinian and Pro-Palestinian militants, 40 of whom were prisoners in Israel. They threatened that if these demands were not met, they would begin to kill hostages on 1 July 1976

On 29 June, the hostages were separated according to nationality. All Israelis and those holding dual citizenship were kept away from other nationalities.
The following day, 48 hostages among the non-Israelis were released, majority of them were old women, children and the sick.

On July 1, after agreeing on the extension of the deadline given to the Israeli government, the hijackers released another 100 hostages.

However, as the negotiations for the release of the hostages were going on in the background, the Israeli intelligence agency, MOSSAD, was working around the clock to provide information to the military to plan and launch a rescue operation, which included a possible military showdown with the Ugandan army.

Plan of Attack
Planning for the rescue took a week on two fronts. There was a political and a military solution. In the end, the military rescue operation took the day. The military solution was boosted by a number of factors, among them the presence of a ‘Vacuamer’ (Mossad’s term for a person who provides detailed information on a target).

This was a lady based in Masaka District for some time working incognito. The other, Gen Baruch Bar-Lev, a retired Israel Defence Force (IDF) officer who patronised with the top brass in the political and military ranks in Uganda and is also alleged to have had a hand in the 1971 coup that brought Amin to power.

The old terminal building of Entebbe Airport
Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

Also important to the Mossad was one of Israel’s big construction companies which had constructed the airport tower and the terminal building where the hostages were being held. Mossad agents acquired blue prints from that company and started planning their attack strategy.

The hijackers gave the Israel government up to July 1, 1976, to either meet their demands or the hostages were to be killed. However, as the day approached an extension was agreed up to July 4 for the demands of the release of all prisoners and a $5 million ransom by both parties.

On July 3, Maj Gen Yekutiel Adam presented to the Israeli cabinet a military rescue operation codenamed “Operation Thunderbolt”, later renamed “Operation Jonathan” in memory of one of the commanders who died during the operation. The plan was approved immediately and Brig Gen Dan Shomron was appointed as the operation commander.

The mission had a problem of refuelling the Lockheed C-130 Hercules planes to be used in the mission. Israel Defence Force did not have the capacity to carry out mid air refuelling.

That was how Kenya came into the picture, taking advantage of the economic muscle of the Jewish community there. According to Gordon Thomas’ Gideon’s Spies, Mossad had used different economic activities to have a foot in Kenya as a way of watching the region.

A Jewish owner of a chain of hotels and other Jews convinced Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta to help the Israeli government, by allowing its planes to refuel from Kenya.

Then Kenyan agriculture minister Bruce MacKenzie weighed in as well to allow Mossad setup base in Nairobi as it gathered more information on the Entebbe airport before the raid.

Intelligence Gathering
As the rescue mission was being planned, intelligence on the strength of the Uganda Air Force and the geography of Entebbe airport was in top gear. Also going on at the same time were negotiations with the hijackers. They managed to get in touch with some non-Jewish hostages who had been released earlier on.

They also managed to work with the Israeli company which had constructed the airport terminal building where the hostages were. This was collaborated with the information from freed hostages on the number of hijackers, type of guns and how they are positioned in the terminal building. This task of information gathering fell on the Mossad operatives who flew to Paris to talk to the freed hostages.

Mossad Agents went all around the Airlines Offices in the city to gather the schedule of all the flights to Entebbe. After analysis they found that British Airways flight from London to Johannesburg who takes a fuelling stop at Entebbe is the last one to depart around 23:00hrs. After that departure the Watch Hours (Operating Hours) of Entebbe Airport gets over, the Air Traffic Controller switches off the runway lights and the staff’s goes off duty.


Rescue Forces
The attacking force was made of four teams all totalling up to 100 people. The ground command and control unit had the operation and overall ground commander, Brig Gen Dan Shomron, air force Col Ami Ayalon plus a communication expert.
The assault team of 29 commandos led by Lt Col Yonatan Netanyahu (brother to Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu) was to lead the attack on the terminal building and rescue the hostages.
The securing team was made of paratroopers, this was divided into two groups, one commanded by Col Matan Vilnai. It was to prepare the runway with beacons pointing in the aircraft direction to facilitate the four planes the IDF had come with.

One of the aircraft crews that landed at Entebbe poses with their plane after the mission.
Image Courtesy: idfblog.com

Another was called the Golan force led by Col Uri Sagi, this was to secure the C-130 Hercules plane meant to take the freed hostages. Another group was the Sayeret Matkal force led by Maj Shaul Mofaz, which was responsible for the destruction of Uganda’s airforce MiG jet fighters and also cut off any possible reinforcement from Kampala to Entebbe.

Four C-130 Hercules military planes left Israel, one had 100 military rescuers followed by two Boeings 707, one with medical facilities, and it was to stay stationed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The other Boeing carrying the operation overall commander Gen Yekutiel Adam was to circle Entebbe airport as the operation went on.

At Entebbe
Taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh, the task force flew along the international flight path over the Red Sea, mostly flying at a height of no more than 30 m (100 ft) to avoid radar detection by Egyptian, Sudanese, and Saudi Arabian forces. Near the south outlet of the Red Sea the C-130s turned south and passed south of Djibouti. From there, they went to a point northeast of Nairobi, Kenya, likely across Somalia and the Ogaden area of Ethiopia. They turned west, passing through the African Rift Valley and over Lake Victoria.

Image Courtesy: BBC News

Two Boeing 707 jets followed the cargo planes. The first Boeing contained medical facilities and landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. The commander of the operation, General Yekutiel Adam, was on board the second Boeing, which circled over Entebbe Airport during the raid.

At exactly 11pm on the night of July 3, 1976 with the pin point accuracy of the time calculation of the different time zone, the first Lockheed C-130 Hercules took a turn over Lake Victoria. All the commanders inside the aircraft were ready with applying black ash on their faces. All the interior and exterior lights of the aircraft were off.  On final approach pilots had the runway in sight. Seconds before touchdown, the scheduled British Airways took off and Air Traffic Controller switched off the runway lights. With the surety of runway, C-130 made a successful landing on the dark runway with their cargo doors already opened. Some Paratroopers jumped off while the plane was taxing and placed lighted markers on the runway to signal the preceding aircraft to spot runway and land successfully.

A convoy of Black Mercedes similar to like President Idi Amin's vehicle and Land Rovers that usually accompanied Amin's Mercedes drove out of the aircraft.

Israeli assault team members drove the vehicles to the terminal building in the same fashion as Amin. As they approached the terminal, two Ugandan security guards, aware that Idi Amin had recently purchased a white Mercedes, ordered the vehicles to stop. The commandos shot the guards using silenced pistols, but did not kill them
They used silenced pistols not to alert the hostage takers.
As they pulled away, an Israeli commando in one of the following Land Rovers killed them with an unsuppressed rifle. Fearing the hijackers would be alerted prematurely, the assault team quickly approached the terminal.

The Attack at Entebbe
Image Courtesy: Daily Monitor

The Israelis sprang from their vehicles and burst towards the terminal. The hostages were in the main hall of the airport building, directly adjacent to the runway. Entering the terminal, the commandos shouted through a megaphone, "Stay down! Stay down! We are Israeli soldiers," in both Hebrew and English. Commanders killed the hijackers one by one.

Meanwhile, the other three C-130 Hercules aeroplanes had landed and unloaded armoured personnel carriers to provide defence during the anticipated hour of refuelling. The Israelis then destroyed Ugandan MiG fighter planes to prevent them from pursuing, and conducted a sweep of the airfield for intelligence-gathering. Israelis also took over a fuel tanker and refuelled their aircrafts.

Bullet Marks on Entebbe Control Tower.
Image Courtesy: Internet

After the raid, the Israeli assault team returned to their aircraft and began loading the hostages. Ugandan soldiers shot at them in the process. The Israeli commandos returned fire with their AK47s, inflicting casualties on the Ugandans. During this brief but intense fire fight, Ugandan soldiers fired from the airport control tower.. Israeli commandos fired light machine guns and a rocket-propelled grenade back at the control tower, suppressing the Ugandans' fire.

The whole operation lasted 90 minutes; it took the rescue team took 53 minutes to rescue 102 hostages while the other 37 minutes were spent on demobilising Uganda’s airforce capability to counter the departing attackers.

During the operation, the assault unit commander, Lt Col Yonatan Netanyahu, was killed. Also killed were all the four hijackers, 45 Ugandan soldiers and three hostages. Also destroyed were a number of Soviet-built MiG 17s and MiG 21 fighter jets.

Destruction of Uganda’s airforce MiG jets.
Image Courtesy: enca.com

Before Idi Amin got the news and Ugandan Force reaches with extra military power from the Capital Kamapala, Israeli mission was over and all the aircrafts were airborne.

During the raid, the government in Tel Aviv turned to Baruch Bar-Lev, who engaged Amin in a number of phone conversations to plead for the release of the hostages.

Throughout the raid at Entebbe, Bar- Lev was on phone with Amin to cut out his communication.

His mission was to keep Amin in the dark of what was happening during the raid, he was only informed afterwards because as soon as the Israelis were airborne, Bar-Lev went off air and Amin could be reached.

The 102 rescued hostages were flown to Israel via Nairobi, Kenya, shortly after the raid.
Hostages returns back home.
Image Courtesy: Cracked.com




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