History Today in Military History

The daring and heroic Operation Entebbe

Jessica Evans Avatar
operation entebbe
Israeli commandos from the Sayeret Matkal after the operation.

“We have to free the hostages. We have to take them out. And we have to get out of there without being detected,” Yoni Netanyahu, Sayeret Matkal commander who lead the assault team during Operation Entebbe told his team.

Imagine hearing those words from your commander and knowing the whole world was watching to see if you could complete your mission. That’s exactly what happened during Operation Entebbe, an extraordinary rescue mission executed by Israeli commandos in 1976.

To date, it remains one of the most audacious and successful military operations in modern history. The elite Israeli Army unit tasked with this mission lost one of their own, but saved 99 others in the process. Here’s how they did it.

Background of Operation Entebbe

On June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 took off from Tel Aviv, bound for Paris with a stopover in Athens. The plane carried 246 passengers and a crew of 12. Shortly after takeoff from Athens, four terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the German Revolutionary Cells (GRC) hijacked the plane. The hijackers demanded the release of 53 prisoners held in Israel, Germany, Kenya, and other countries.

The hijackers diverted the plane to Benghazi, Libya, where it refueled before taking off again and landing at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Upon arrival, Ugandan President Idi Amin welcomed the hijackers, and the group took an additional 156 passengers off the plane, bringing the total number of hostages to 102. The Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, found themselves in a race against time to save the hostages.

operation entebbe rescued passengers
Rescued passengers welcomed at Ben Gurion Airport.

Planning the Rescue

Israel initially considered negotiating with the hijackers, but they quickly realized that a rescue mission was the only viable option. A team of elite Israeli commandos, known as Sayeret Matkal, assembled for the task. Led by Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, the older brother of future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the team planned a high-risk, long-range operation to free the hostages.

Israeli intelligence played a critical role in the planning stage. An Israeli businessman in Uganda provided valuable information about the layout of Entebbe Airport, which helped the commandos formulate their strategy. Additionally, the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, managed to track down a flight schedule for the airport, which was crucial for timing the raid.

Operation Entebbe Unleashed

On July 3, 1976, a week after the hijacking, four Israeli transport planes, carrying 100 commandos and their equipment, took off from Israel, flying more than 2,500 miles to Uganda. The operation was daring and ambitious, with the commandos facing considerable risks and uncertainties.

The commandos landed at Entebbe Airport under the cover of darkness, utilizing a stealthy approach. They drove to the airport terminal in a black Mercedes and Land Rovers, disguised as a Ugandan presidential convoy. This ploy was successful in fooling the Ugandan soldiers guarding the airport.

Upon reaching the terminal, the commandos stormed the building, eliminating the hijackers and Ugandan soldiers in just minutes. In the process, three hostages died. However, the remaining 99 made it out alive.

The commandos also destroyed Ugandan MiG fighter planes on the ground to prevent any pursuit.

Tragically, Yoni Netanyahu lost his life saving others. He was the only Israeli commando who died and his sacrifice and leadership were instrumental in the mission’s success.

operation entebbe aircraft
The Air France Airbus A300 involved, at Charles de Gaulle Airport in 1980.

Those who lived it

Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu was the commander of the elite Israeli commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, during Operation Thunderbolt. The book, “Yoni’s Last Battle: The Rescue at Entebbe, 1976″ by Iddo Netanyahu, which provides insights into his life and his role in the operation.

Muki Betser was Yoni Netanyahu’s deputy during the operation. In his autobiography, “Secret Soldier: The True Life Story of Israel’s Greatest Commando,” Betser details his experiences during the operation and shares personal stories from his time as an elite commando in the Israeli military.

Surin Hershko was a member of the assault team during Operation Thunderbolt. He was injured in the raid. A spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the neck down. Despite his injury, Hershko has become an inspiration to many, and he has shared his story in interviews and documentaries, detailing his experience during the operation and how it has impacted his life.

Shimon Peres was the Israeli Minister of Defense during Operation Thunderbolt and played a crucial role in planning and approving the mission. In his memoir, “Battling for Peace: A Memoir,” Peres recounts the operation and the decision-making process that led to its execution.

Aftermath and Legacy

Operation Entebbe remains a defining moment in modern history, showcasing Israel’s determination to protect its citizens and the skill and bravery of its elite commandos. However, the mission’s impact extended beyond its immediate success. The daring rescue mission demonstrated the lengths to which a nation will go to protect its citizens, even in the most challenging circumstances. It also had diplomatic implications, impressing the international community with Israel’s capabilities, but also straining its relationships with certain African nations.

Furthermore, the operation’s legacy endures to this day, inspiring military tactics, shaping international diplomacy, and captivating popular culture. Through the personal stories of those who lived through the event, such as Yoni Netanyahu, Muki Betser, Surin Hershko, and Shimon Peres, Operation Entebbe continues to inspire courage, resilience and commitment to a cause greater than oneself.