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Vol. 9, No. 1
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102  

Dare the Impossible – Achieve the Extraordinary.



© 2012  William A. Cohen, PhD  

Motto of the British SAS

Although the details of recent commando operations carried out primarily by U.S. Seal Team 6 which resulted in the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the rescue of hostages from pirates in Somalia are still largely secret and as a result the general information released is  largely conflicting, here’s a raid carried more than thirty years ago in which full details are available.

It was July 4th, 1976. As the United States celebrated its 200th bicentennial year, the national news networks suddenly interrupted programs in progress over radio and television to make an incredible announcement. Israeli commandos had flown 2200 miles across Africa and Lake Victoria to land in Uganda and free more than a hundred Jewish and Israeli hostages threatened with death by their terrorist captives. Not only was this an amazing feat, but it came after a long series of aircraft hijackings by various groups seeking to gain publicity through terror in the sky. Israel’s commando operation demonstrated that the world need not put up with these activities and what could be done by those who dared.

This particular hijacking had started several days earlier on June 27, 1976. Air France flight 139 with 246 passengers traveling from Ben Gurion Airport in Israel to Paris via Athens was hijacked by terrorists who boarded during the stopover. The hijackers, armed with guns and grenades, ordered the plane to divert to Benghazi, Libya for refueling. When the plane took off again, the terrorists ordered it to a pre-designated objective: Entebbe, Uganda in Africa.

The operation had been carefully planned by Dr. Wadia Hadad’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The landing in Uganda was with the approval and assistance of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Though a Muslim, Amin had visited Israel earlier and promised peaceful relations with the Jewish state. He even wore Israeli paratrooper wings on his military uniform after his visit. But now he needed money. Seeking economic aid from other Muslim states, he sought to change his image of being friendly toward the Jewish state.

On landing, the terrorists separated the passengers into two groups:  Jews and non-Jews. Non-Jews were released. The French aircrew was also released, but they refused to depart until such time as their Jewish passengers would be released as well.

The terrorists demanded that 53 convicted terrorists who were serving sentences in Israel, France, Germany, Switzerland and Kenya be released. They threatened to execute the remaining 105 Jewish and Israeli hostages if their demands were not met. A forty-eight hour deadline was set before the executions were to begin. Eventually, the deadline was extended until 2:00 am on July 4th.

Meanwhile, planning for rescue by Israeli commandos under the overall command of Brigadier General Dan Shomron, who later became Chief of the Israeli General Staff, was initiated as soon as the hijacking became apparent. It was complicated by the fact that the aircraft was a foreign carrier and that the hostages were held in an unfriendly foreign country several thousand miles away. Moreover, the Israelis knew that they didn’t have a lot of time to either plan or rehearse the raid. The risk was great, and surprise was Israel’s only ally. Israel decided to dare to do the impossible.

The plan that evolved was for a night attack by the Sayeret Mat’kal, an Israeli special operations unit reporting directly to the Israeli general staff, along with a few commandos with special skills on loan from the elite Golani infantry brigade. Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan (Yoni) Netanyahu commanded the 200-man assault force. Lieutenant Colonel Netanyahu was the Sayeret Mat’kal’s commander and brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had earlier served in the same commando unit which was then commanded by the current Israeli Defense Minister and also onetime prime minister Ehud Barak.

The assault commandos would be airlifted by four C-130 Hercules aircraft.  One C-130 included a deception team. To deceive the Ugandan soldiers assisting the hijackers, a black Mercedes limo, identical to the one used by Idi Amin and Land Rover vehicles typically employed by Amin’s army would  lead the assault force. A fifth C-130 was to carry the rescued hostages to freedom.

Overhead, an Israeli Air Force Boeing 707 would circle to provide overall command and control of the operation. Another Boeing 707 contained hospital medical teams and landed at nearby Nairobi, Kenya and were prepared to take-off for Entebbe at a moments notice.

Israeli Air Force pilots practiced landing their C-130 aircraft and operating totally in the dark late into the night of July 2. To give you some idea of what they were attempting, even Doolittle’s B-25 crews, practicing for take-off from the aircraft carrier Hornet during World War II for the first raid on Tokyo had three weeks, not a few hours to practice. Meanwhile, the deception and assault teams rehearsed their roles. Only when satisfied that the operation could be successful did General Shomron recommend to his superiors that they actually implement the plan.

At 1:20pm on July 3rd, the assault force took off. It split up on take-off and flew off in different directions to mislead unfriendly eyes that may have watched the take-off since the military airfield was adjacent to International  Ben Gurion Air Port. Out of sight, the attacking armada then headed south at low level to avoid radar detection by Russian ships and Egyptian Radar. They avoided the easy direct route and flew through stormy weather over Lake Victoria to get to Entebbe. About a third of the route they were escorted by Israel F-4 fighters, but eventually, the fighters had to break off and returned to base due to fuel limitations. It was thought that aerial re-fueling would make the procedure unduly complex and could compromise the mission.  The Israelis force flew on, arriving at Entebbe about 11:00 pm.

Although the Israelis had prepared to land in the dark, amazingly, the landing lights at the Entebbe airport were on. Without permission from the control tower, and after a seven hour and forty minute flight, the aircraft landed only one minute off of pre-planned schedule. As the aircraft turned onto the taxiway leading to the old airport terminal, the rear cargo ramp of the leading aircraft was lowered and the black Mercedes and two Land Rovers drove out. Ugandan flags flew from the Mercedes and all 35 commandos on the deception team were dressed in Ugandan army uniforms.

The first Ugandan guards were passed without incident. But then a suspicious guard challenged the force and a firefight broke out.  Netanyahu immediately ordered the assault on the old terminal where the hostages were held and guarded by the terrorists. Meanwhile, Israeli armored personnel carriers isolated the airfield from Ugandan reinforcements. Other commandos secured all access to roads to the airport and took over the new terminal and the control tower.  Aircrews took fuel pumps off one of their planes in preparation for refueling from Entebbe’s own supplies for the return trip.

The assault on the old terminal building was completed within three minutes after the lead plane landed. This was quicker than timing done on mock-ups in practice in Israel.

Within seven minutes the hostage passengers and crew of Air France 139 were evacuated onto IDF planes. The old terminal building was left deserted except for the dead bodies of the eight hijackers.

As the C-130 with the hostages took off, other commandos destroyed Ugandan MIG fighter aircraft on the ground to prevent any pursuit in the air. The commandos took their own wounded, two wounded hostages, and their single killed in action casualty.  They reloaded their vehicles and equipment and the last Israeli plane departed. From landing to departure, the raid lasted only an hour and forty-eight minutes.

The cost in killed among the commandos was only one commando killed in action, but it was nevertheless a heavy loss for the Israelis. A sniper had killed Lieutenant Colonel Netanyahu, the commander of the assault force. One hostage could not be rescued. She had been moved earlier to a local hospital. She was later executed on orders of Idi Amin.

The daring raid, with impossible logistics and unbelievably limited preparation time, insured a complete surprise, and helped to make this rescue a great success. As noted in one report, “It was a setback for terrorists everywhere since it showed that a determined nation could successfully mount counter-operations to defeat them with no gain for the terrorists at all. The success also weakened the dictator Idi Amin by emboldening Amin’s opponents. Sabotage and resistance to him increased and by 1979 he was deposed.”

I consulted several sources for this description of the Entebbe Rescue, including not only the above, but also, the Israeli Defense Force’s own release , and had several talks with participants. This particular action had more than passing interest for me, as when I lived in Israel and flew in the Israeli Air Force during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, my squadron, 120 squadron,  had been assigned C-97 aircraft. The C-97 was a very old American transport from the 1950 era. The Israeli Air Force used it for transport, electronic countermeasures and command and control work. The squadron also owned two more modern C-130H model aircraft purchased from the U.S. in 1972. In the middle of the Yom Kippur War, the U.S. had donated about a dozen C-130E aircraft from the C-130 flight school. 120 Squadron immediately split into an additional squadron, 131 Squadron, the latter flying the C-130. Two years after the war, new Boeing 707s, especially modified by Israel Aircraft Industries, Ltd to Israeli Air Force specifications, finally replaced the old C-97s. It was 120 Squadron with the 707s and 131 Squadron with the C-130s that supported the assault commandos in this raid. Of course, by then I was long gone and  re-commissioned in the United States Air Force. Nevertheless, it was  my old squadron from earlier years which had helped dared the impossible.

There is an important lesson here for all leaders, not only in the military, but in every non-profit on this earth: dare the impossible and you will achieve the extraordinary!


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“Consider nothing, before it has come to pass, to be impossible.”

                                                                                                    – Cicero