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Today's Army

Vnukovo Airlines Hijacking

Operation Jonathan

At approximately 1230 on Sunday, June 27, 1976, Air France flight number AF 139 was hijacked by four terrorists. The plane, of which nearly one-third of the passengers were Jewish, was flown to Benghazi. After a six and a half hour delay, the plane took off again and began flying east. It changed course and began flying south east; by 0300 the next morning it had arrived at Entebbe, Uganda.

Upon arrival, the four terrorists ( two of which were members of the German Baader-Meinhof Gang ) were joined by three others, bringing the total up to seven. The passengers were kept on the aircraft until 1200, at which point they were transported to the airfield's old terminal building.

Then President of Uganda, Idi Amin, visited the hostages in the terminal and told them he was working to achieve their release, and that Ugandan soldiers would remain at the terminal to ensure their safety. The next day at 1530, the leader of the terrorists, a Palestine nick named the Peruvian released the specific demands the group of terrorists were seeking. 53 terrorists: thirteen held in prisons in France, W. Germany, Kenya, and Switzerland and 40 in Israeli prisons were to be released. If they were not, hostages would be executed starting at 1400 July 1.

Sayeret Matkal was placed on alert shortly after the Israeli government learned about the hijacking. Members of the Unit assembled at Lod Airport In Israel ( The origin of flight 139 ), but were stood down temporarily when the aircraft landed in Benghazi. Separately from Sayeret Mat'Kal, Lt. Col. Joshua Shani of the Israeli Air Force's only C-130 squadron began conducting basic flight planning for his aircraft to fly to and back from Uganda.

When the Peruvian announced the terms for release and impending execution if they were not met, Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, convened a group of cabinet ministers; one of them was IDF Chief of Staff Motta Gur. There were serious complications in using military forces ( Uganda was 2,200 miles away, the flight was from a French Company, and only 1/3 of the passengers were Jewish, and not all of these were from Israel ) but the military began reviewing options.

Throughout Wednesday, June 30, intelligence information began to filter in. Idi Amin was not seeking the release of the hostages and was actually collaborating with the PFLP. This made an early plan requiring marine commandos to rescue the hostages and then surrender to Ugandan soldiers undesirable. Motta Gur reported that the IDF had no viable plan to rescue the hostages. On Thursday, July 1, Rabin's government agreed to release their prisoners.

Earlier that day, the PFLP terrorists had released 100 passengers, leaving only the Jewish population of the aircraft and the flight crew. Upon receiving word that Israel had agreed to the exchange, the terrorist moved the day of execution back, to Sunday July 4. Intelligence agents were told by the released passengers that the Ugandan soldiers were fully cooperating with the terrorists, and that the Jewish passengers were segregated from the rest. The real purpose of the hijacking was beginning to be made clear. Once again, the military was asked for options.

Jonathan Netanyahu, commander of Sayeret Mat'kal, was briefed on the roles and missions of the units in the plan that was then under development. It called for three ground elements, The Unit, members of the Elite Golani Infantry, and paratroopers. Netanyahu and others argued for a smaller, more flexible force. Brigadier General Dan Shomron, who would ultimately command the raid, decided to go with Netanyahu's recommendation.

By Friday, July 2, a basic plan of attack had been created. Even though the military had not yet been given the mission to rescue the hostages, members of the Unit began to run through the mission. A pole and burlap mock-up of the terminal had been constructed at their base and members of the unit practiced entering and clearing it. Members of Mat'kal now new exactly how many terrorists there were and what they were armed with; a pregnant hostage who had been released had been debriefed and had given Israeli intelligence the information. 8mm film footage taken by a sergeant major formerly stationed in Entebbe was shown to familiarize the commandos with the airport.

Drivers from the Unit met with crews from the Israeli Air Force to practice off-loading all of the vehicles that were to be brought along for the mission. As further intelligence and information came in, the plan was further refined and improved. Members of The Unit continued to practice all throughout Friday as the Israeli government pondered what to do. Friday evening, a full dress rehearsal was performed for IDF Chief of Staff Motta Gur. After witnessing a successful "operation", Motta Gur told the senior officers in the unit he would recommend to the Prime Minister that the mission be approved. The Commandos, their practice session complete, attempted to rest for the mission the next day.

The Mission
The members of Sayeret Mat'Kal participating in the assault met at Lod Airport at 1130 on Saturday, July 3, six days after the terrorists had hijacked the aircraft and passengers. A final briefing was conducted and last minute details between the C-130 crews and commandos were addressed. At 1320 the aircraft took off ( Heading in different directions to fool potential spies ) and headed south at low levels to avoid radar detection by Russian ships and Egyptian Radar.

The timing of the assault was critical; in order to slip their large C-130 transports into the airport undetected by radar the force was to land closely behind a British Airways flight that was scheduled to land for refueling. The aircraft made a brief stop at Sharm-a-Sheikh to top off their fuel tanks and feed the troops before the four aircraft formation headed south on their 7.5 hour flight to Entebbe.

By 2230 the aircraft had reached Lake Victoria, just a short distance from Entebbe by air. The last three C-130s broke formation and circled as the lead aircraft made its approach. At 2300 on July 23 ( Israeli time ) the lead aircraft touched down. The commandos on board immediately sprang into action. Aircrew quickly undid the tie-downs and prepared to lower the ramp as the commandos started their vehicles. As the aircraft slowed, ten members from the elite Golani Infantry jumped out and set up landing beacons for the remaining aircraft. As the aircraft turned onto the taxiway leading to the old terminal, the rear cargo ramp was lowered and a black Mercedes and two land rovers drove out. Ugandan flags flew from the Mercedes and all 35 commandos were dressed in Ugandan uniforms.

The three vehicle convoy proceeded towards the old terminal with their lights on at a steady 40 Mph (64 KPH). The vehicles drove towards the terminal for a full minute before being challenged by two Ugandan sentries. Lieutenant Colonel Netanyahu slowed the vehicles as if to stop and, when the sentries were within range, ordered his men to fire. Israeli commandos opened fire with silenced Berettas, killing one sentry and missing another; who who stumbled backwards and began to raise his rifle. An Israeli commando quickly opened fire, killing the sentry with his AK-47, but piercing the night with the weapon's loud report. Realizing that the element of surprise was lost, Netanyahu immediately ordered the drivers to head for the old terminal at full speed. As they approached, several soldiers and a terrorist could be seen milling about outside in confusion.

The vehicles quickly parked by the control tower adjacent to the old terminal and the commandos jumped out and began their attack. The lone terrorist seen outside ran inside yelling, "The Ugandans have gone nuts--they're shooting at us!" The Israelis had truly achieved the element of surprise.

During the initial phase of the assault, Muki Betser's (the second in command) element ran into a problem when a door that had been included in the plans was not there. Netanyahu ran past him and resumed the assault while Betser's group found other entry to the building. A Ugandan guard jumped up from behind some wooden crates and began to fire but was cut down. Another fired from within the terminal, spraying glass and bullets about. He too, is killed by Mat'Kal commandos now entering the building. The Commandos began to clear the building. Some members were darting about independently while others were clumping together, but the basic plan was being followed. Somewhere in this initial assault phase, Johnathan Netanyahu is shot and mortally wounded.

Within THREE minutes of landing, four of the seven terrorists had been killed. The troopers continued to clear the building. By this time, events have been happening so quickly that some of the Mat'kal soldiers are disoriented. Some men are out of position or in the wrong hallways. A little girl suddenly jumped up in on of the rooms they were clearing. The commandos were able to recognize in time that she was not a terrorist and hold their fire, but two other passengers who also stood up were not so lucky and are badly wounded.

The team assigned to assault the VIP lounge in the terminal found the outside door locked. One of them threw a grenade at the door; it bounced of and exploded, wounded one member slightly. They went inside the terminal and entered from an open door there. Inside were two men. As the members of the Unit entered, the two men stood up and began moving towards the commandos, hands raised. Unsure as to the two men's intentions, the commandos withheld their fire until one noticed a grenade belt around the waist of one of the men. Their commands to halt unheeded, they opened fire and killed the two men. As they did, one of the terrorist dropped a grenade he had been hiding in his hand.

All the terrorists were now dead. Only the Ugandan soldiers stood in the way of a safe escape. Several soldiers were holed up in the tower next to the old terminal and were firing at the Mat'kal soldiers remaining in the landrovers. The mortally wounded Netanyahu was evacuated to a C-130 at this time. The second C-130 landed six minutes after the first and two armored personnel carriers offloaded and headed to the secured terminal. When they arrived they took it under fire and temporarily silenced it.

Two more APCs arrived on the third C-130 and joined the first two. One split off and destroyed eight MiGs stationed at the base. Members of Sayeret Golani arrived and set up a defensive perimeter. Within Fifteen minutes of the first C-130 landing, the hostages had been freed and the area secured.

Mat'kal commandos began evacuating the rescued civilians to a waiting C-130. They were hampered by passengers returning to the terminal to try and find lost property and darkness. Several of the passengers were also in shock or hysterical. Getting an accurate headcount was difficult in the darkened aircraft. At 2352, less than an hour after the first Hercules landed, the C-130 with 106 rescued hostages took off and flew into the night.

With the hostages safe, the rest of the force began to withdraw to their aircraft. Their movements were covered by smoke and timed explosives devices. The last C-130 left Entebbe at 2429, 99 minutes after the first one had landed. The cost, one commando killed (Netanyahu) and one hostage dead ( she had been moved to a local hospital after a choking incident and was not present during the rescue. She was subsequently executed in retribution for the raid ).

The rescue at Entebbe is a classic example of a successful special operations. The Israelis used surprise and superior training to overcome their enemies and gain their objectives with a minimum loss of life. It was a logistically difficult mission. Thirty-five commandos in two Landrovers and a Mercedes with four APCs for firepower had to be transported over 2,200 miles and back again with over 100 hostages. The building the hostages were kept in was guarded by seven terrorists and an unknown number of Ugandan soldiers and was reported to be wired with explosives.

Originally, the Israeli military wanted to use a large force and secure the entire airfield. Netanyahu argued for, and got, a smaller force that would take only the terminal. Speed and surprise would be their main advantages. Using information about the old terminal, a mock-up was built allowing the commandos to practice beforehand, allowing them some familiarity with the terminal.

The Israeli assault of Entebbe achieved it's goals with stunning success. Any study of successful counter-terror operations would be remiss in not including this operation.