Deputy commander of 1976 Entebbe rescue: 'Landing was trickiest part'

Passenger recounts week in captivity during Hebrew U. conference

January 18, 2017 05:32

A police officer clears the way for rescued Air France hostages arriving in Tel Aviv after returning from Entebbe. (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)

he July 4, 1976 Entebbe rescue and the October 18, 1977 Mogadishu raid against terrorist plane hijackers by Israeli and German commandos respectively are two of the most dramatic kidnapping rescues in modern history. But for Matan Vilnai – former minister, ambassador, and IDF general who was the deputy commander of the Entebbe rescue – the most tense moment of all was trying to land the commando force without authorization in Uganda, thousands of miles from Israel.

“The first critical moment was when we needed to land a group of heavy airplanes, which was already suspicious, because usually groups of airplanes do not fly together…and there was no GPS like today,” Vilnai told The Jerusalem Post on Monday during a two-day Hebrew University of Jerusalem conference on the 40th anniversary of the two rescues.

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Vilnai said it was “critical that there were no injuries” during the landing, noting that in many operations, including the famous Bin Laden assassination, even top special forces pilots end up crashing aircraft or helicopters because of the uniquely difficult covert conditions for landing.

As the landings progressed, the flight control tower started “asking in African English: who are you and we all started to give ideas of what to say to the commander.”

“The eight Sayeret Matkal (special forces) under my command along with Doron Almog (a future major general) were on the first airplane to land, with lighting, but the second airplane had to land in a blackout,” said Vilnai.

He credited the operation’s commander and sole IDF casualty, Lt.-Col. Yoni Netanyahu, for giving critical orders as they got off the Hercules transport – orders which he said likely led to Netanyahu’s death from a sniper who likely noted his hand signals, which distinguished him as the senior officer.
Operation Entebbe (courtesy: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

The entire operation took only 51 minutes from landing to take off with the rescued hostages. Vilnai gave huge credit to the Mossad, Entebbe planner Dan Shomron (then a brigadier-general and future chief of staff) and to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who decided on the daring raid. It included not only taking out several Palestinian and German terrorists, but also Ugandan soldiers and Ugandan MiG aircraft so that no one could pursue them.

The Mogadishu operation was presented by the German deputy commander of its GSG9 Counterterror Unit, Dieter Fox. He saw differences and similarities between his team’s successful rescuing of hijacked passengers in Mogadishu, Somalia, and the Entebbe operation, adding that his unit had learned a lot from Israel’s May 9, 1972 rescue of a hijacked Sabena airliner at the then Lod Airport by the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, led by future prime minister Ehud Barak and including future PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Fox told the Post that the planning of his operation was very complicated, having to follow the hijackers from Turkey to Cyprus to Dubai to Jeddah to Yemen, and only then to the eventual Mogadishu rescue site. Each time they gathered intelligence about the right moment to strike, said Fox, speaking German through an interpreter.

Fox said that pursuing the kidnappers on its own was “not something unusual for us. There was a feeling then that this can and will happen in Germany at any time because there was already the experience of two persons killed by far left terrorists, attacks on politicians, state attorneys and businessmen.”

He explained that he and his unit were ready to stage the rescue in Dubai “because of intelligence that the conditions on the plane were worsening”, but that the UAE government “didn’t want the operation or wanted their own people to do it.”

Having followed the hijackers with a small airplane, most of the way, when they received intelligence from the Saudis that the hijackers were going to Mogadishu, they took a larger airplane with a fuller compliment of their counterterror unit and planned to stage the rescue.

This was also the worst point for the hostages as “we found out later that the terrorists put alcohol on the hostages in Somalia to enhance the burning in case they were blown up.”

He said Somalia was more flexible than the other countries, agreeing to provide cover fire for the then West Germans and allowing the GSG9 to perform the actual rescue.

Describing the moment his unit went into action, he said, “at such a time…all of the tension is released after waiting for such a long time… training and rehearsing for five years since [the 1972 Olympics terrorist attack in] Munich,” adding that they had practiced boarding more than  80 different kinds of airplanes. “We approached the airplane from the back, took positions under the plane…opened the doors, tossed in flash blanks to achieve a distraction, and opened fire on the terrorists, while simultaneously calling out in German to the passengers to keep their heads down.”

The fighting lasted about three minutes and the whole operation about eight, with Fox and his comrades feeling they had truly turned around West Germany’s counterterrorist operations following the failed rescue in Munich.

Benny Davidson was only 13 at the time of the Entebbe operation and was leaving his native Israel for the first time with his family to the US to drive cross-country as a bar mitzva present. He told the Post that the “highs and lows of that week were a microcosm of the highs and lows of our lives.”

Davidson told the Post on the sidelines of the conference that his mother did not like learning that they would stopover in Athens on the way to Paris and the US when they got to the airport in Lod, but that while on the runway in Athens they took some great photographs of the city from the runway stairs as other passengers got off and on.

Davidson said that, a few minutes after the Air France plane took off from Athens, “suddenly we hear a high-pitched scream. My mom immediately grabbed my father’s hand and said ‘we’ve been hijacked.’ My father said ‘get over your anxieties, someone just isn’t feeling well.”

But “after a few seconds, we saw the stewardess with her hands up and the German female terrorist holding a gun to her head in one hand and a grenade in another hand,” recalled Davidson.

“There was tremendous noise and all hell broke loose. Then two Palestinians ran forward from behind us to the front of the airplane, each with a gun and a grenade, yelling in Arabic and English...My father quietly told all of us to lean down and slide our backsides forward so we would be lower in the seats and not get hit by a stray bullet,” he said.

Debates had broken out among the passengers during the week of their captivity about whether they would be rescued, but when the operation started around 11 p.m. he recalled his mother lying on top of him on a bathroom floor to protect him and trying to recite the Shema prayer.

His senses were overwhelmed with the gunfire and explosions around him, until an Israeli soldier calmly approached them and said in Hebrew, “Hello, we came to bring you home. We brought a Hercules airplane.”

Davidson added that some of the shock finally started to break on the flight home, when the pilot embraced them warmly after realizing that he and Davidson’s father had been in the same pilot’s course years before.

Besides these individual experiences, the conference also explored a number of important issues regarding Palestinian terrorism in Germany at the time and the place of the Entebbe and Mogadishu operations in Israel’s and Germany’s national memories.

One particularly striking lecture was given by Emek Yezreel Academic College Professor Ido Zelkowitz on how Palestinian Fatah leaders from 1962-1972 used the safe spaces of academia as a cover for developing their terror cells.

Their strategies included recruiting German-speaking and looking Palestinians to help rally sympathy for the Palestinian cause against Israel.

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