7 Days in Entebbe (now in theaters) tells the story of Operation Thunderbolt, the daring 1976 rescue of 94 Israeli passengers and 12 crew members from an Air France grounded in Uganda after a hijacking by German PLO sympathizers. Inspired by the movie, we’ve got a list of the ten greatest operation names in military history.
The Entebbe raid was an enormous story back in 1976, so big that it wasn’t totally overshadowed by the fact that the raid took place on the American Bicentennial on July 4, 1976. The popular fascination with the successful raid inspired two better-than-average, all-star TV movies that fall: Victory at Entebbe (starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Dreyfuss, Kirk Douglas, Helen Hayes, Burt Lancaster, Anthony Hopkins, and Linda Blair) and Raid on Entebbe (starring Charles Bronson, Peter Finch, Jack Warden, James Woods, Sylvia Sidney, and Martin Balsam. Plus Irvin Kershner of The Empire Strikes Back directed).
It’s forty years later, so it’s probably time to revisit one of the greatest military successes of the 20th century. Directed José Padhila (Narcos and the excellent Robocop reboot) and written by Gregory Burke (’71), the new movie tries to explore the motivations of the Palestinians and gives them more sympathy than the German terrorists but ultimately comes down firmly on the side of the Israelis and their rescue mission.
Thunderbolt was one of the greats, both in name and execution. Here are ten military operations with indelibly memorable names.
1. Operation Overlord
The Allied invasion of France on D-Day may have been the best-kept secret in military history right up until landing on June 6, 1944. The outcome of the war in Europe was essentially settled that day, even though fighting with Germany carried on into 1945.
Overlord sounds like the Bringer of Doom from a medieval fantasy epic or sci-fi video game. Ultimate success must have seemed inevitable from the moment someone came up with the name.
2. Operation Rolling Thunder
Rolling Thunder was the 1967-68 bombing campaign of North Vietnam that American generals were sure would break the will of the enemy and lead to victory in the war. It did massive damage but, as history later revealed, the United States underestimated the commitment of the Vietnamese people to unified self-government and overestimated their commitment to Communism.
That doesn’t make Rolling Thunder any less of a fantastic name. It perfectly evokes the waves of destruction wrought by the bombing campaign. Plus, it later inspired the name of a powerful Vietnam vet B-movie starring William Devane and that movie, in turn, inspired the name of Quentin Tarantino’s movie production company.
3. Operation Red Dawn
Red Dawn was the mission to capture Saddam Hussein after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. American forces finally tracked him down in a spider hole in December and, unlike Osama bin Laden, he hadn’t spent his last days of freedom living in relative luxury.
What lands Red Dawn on this list is the fact that it’s named after the 1984 film that’s one of the greatest pro-America movies ever made. Faced with a Soviet invasion, a group of regular teenagers forms at guerrilla force that takes on the oppressors and fights to regain American freedom. Most of them already knew how to hunt and they even taught the girls how to shoot at the Soviets.
4. Operation Vittles
World War III might have started in 1948 after the Soviet Union blockaded access to the western sectors of Berlin. Faced with starving citizens, President Truman authorized the airlift of live-saving food supplies for nearly a year before the Soviets relented and allowed normal access.
Most military bureaucrats would’ve come up with a boring name like “Operation Food Basket” or “Operation Dinner Table.” A Brit might have come up with “Operation Victuals.” We all know it was a red-blooded American who had the sense to call it “Vittles.”
5. Operation Urgent Fury
Was it totally necessary in 1983 for U.S. forces to invade a tiny (population: 91,000) Caribbean nation that was flirting with Communism? Were they a falling domino that would set off a flood of pro-Soviet regimes in the American sphere of influence? It was over in a week with 19 U.S. killed and 116 wounded.
The name, on the other hand, was one of the best. “Operation Urgent Fury” sounds like the title of a movie that would pair Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme as grizzled special ops leaders who join forces to put down the Sandinistas once and for all.
6. Operation Desert Storm
Back in 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait and President George H.W. Bush sent American troops to the Middle East in hopes that Saddam would back down. He didn’t and American forces launched a 6-week war to retake Kuwait and cripple Iraq. It was fast and won widespread homefront support, partially because of the excellent live 24-hour television coverage from the fledgling news network, CNN.
A Desert Storm is created by wind and sand. It’s sudden, ruthless, and incredibly disorienting. Not to take away from the men and women who have fought the War on Terror, but “Operation Iraqi Freedom” doesn’t have the same unforgettable fury as a Desert Storm.
7. Operation Wrath of God
Palestinian terrorists from Black September and the PLO attacked the athletes’ village at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympic Games, taking the Israeli team hostage and eventually massacring 11 athletes and coaches. The horrific result of the standoff could have been at least partially behind the risky decision to attempt the risky Entebbe operation four years later.
Over the next 16 years, Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency conducted a covert operation to retaliate against the terrorists responsible for the massacre and several of their most important supporters. Since it was covert, the exact number of retaliation killings is unclear. Steven Spielberg dramatized the operation in his underrated 2005 film, Munich.
Does the name really need any explanation? Israeli Jews worship an Old Testament God, one who’s known for his spells of anger and vengeance. The Mossad brought down the wrath on what Israelis justified as a mission from God. Black September didn’t have a chance.
8. Operation Barbarossa
In June 1941, German military leaders were looking forward to crushing Stalin as they invaded the Soviet Union with Operation Barbarossa. They would take the western lands of the USSR and put the people and natural resources to work expanding the Nazi war machine. Short version: Hitler underestimated this foe and the invasion was a huge misstep that led directly to Germany’s defeat in World War II.
How did a German military operation get an Italian name? Barbarossa is Italian for “Red Beard.” Frederick I was a king of Germany who became Holy Roman Emperor in 1155. A great military leader and charismatic ruler, Frederick died in Asia Minor while leading the Third Crusade. Which, come to think of it, foreshadows the practical end of Germany’s attempt to rule Europe after their defeat at Stalingrad.
9. Operation Magic Carpet
A 1949-1950 secret airlift brought almost 50,000 Yeminite Jews from Aden to the new state of Israel. Like most things connected to the nation of Israel, the mission attracted controversy, most notably from Israeli officials who focused on the number of Jews left behind by British and American rescuers.
Still, Operation Magic Carpet is the best possible name for an operation aimed at flying refugees to safety across the Arabian deserts.
Further reading: 4 military movies whose hero should be dead
10. Operation Dynamo
2017 was the year of Operation Dynamo at the movies, with both Dunkirk and Darkest Hour winning multiple Oscars. Dynamo was the hastily-conceived plan to evacuate British troops from French beaches after the German invasion of France in May 1940. Over 338,000 troops were rescued, a miracle that allowed Great Britain to regroup and eventually win the war in concert with its Allies.
The movie Darkest Hour suggests that the name was given to the operation in haste after Churchill demanded that the rescue begin and telling his commanding officer that it needed a name. The officer glances up and sees a physical dynamo with a metal badge that says “Dynamo” and the movie cuts to the next scene without further comment. Sometimes, the best names are the ones you don’t think too hard about.