On Wednesday 3rd May 2017 more than 60 guests at a church in Sussex were treated to a vivid description of what is widely known as Operation Entebbe, although the Israelis renamed it Operation Yonatan after its leader, Yonatan Netanyahu.
The Air France plane
It was a daring rescue operation that resolved a week-long hostage crisis that had captured the world’s attention as soon as Air France flight 139 was hijacked on Sunday 27th June 1976, with more than 200 passengers and 12 crew on board. The plane and its passengers were eventually taken to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, and held hostage there while the hijackers made their demands.
It was one of the Israeli soldiers who took part in the rescue operation who described it to us last Wednesday. In recent years he has pulled together much information so as to be able to give a very full factual account of what happened. And that account held the attention of the audience for a full two hours.
He described to us the way that, after days of uncertainty, the disappearance of initial hopes that Air France would resolve the situation, and then a slow realisation that direct negotiation would not resolve it either, the Israeli soldiers and airmen were finally given the order to ‘go’ on Saturday 3rd July 1976.
Three Hercules aircraft took off from Israel with around 200 soldiers, 8 aircrew and 8 cars. They were accompanied by a fourth Hercules that was empty apart from its aircrew and some medical staff – ready to transport the hostages back to Israel. They were only given the final order to continue with the operation at 6:30pm – whilst already in flight towards Uganda!
They flew for a total of 10 hours through much turbulence caused by flying at low altitude, so there was much air sickness! They even had to press on through a tropical storm for three hours before reaching Entebbe Airport and carrying out the rescue in less than an hour. Yet there were several points at which the plan seemed to go wrong, such as an initial burst of gunfire to silence a couple of Ugandan soldiers guarding the route to the terminal building.
There was also trouble when the fourth Hercules plane sank into the ground at the side of the runway as the pilot turned it to pick up the hostages. But despite these problems the Israelis rescued most of the hostages – all but three who died in the gunfight with the terrorists and one who later died in hospital. All the terrorists died, as did around 20 Ugandan soldiers, and Yonatan Netanyahu, the rescue operation’s leader.
The long return flight saw them sleep from exhaustion – despite the lack of comfort in the Hercules transport aircraft – and finally arrive back in Israel to be welcomed as heroes. It was a major setback for the terrorists of the time. More than 100 hostages had been rescued without the terrorists’ demands being met.
To make it possible, “God had worked extra hours!”
Some of the hostages disembarking in Israel (IDF archives)