Operation Entebbe as told by the commandos: Heading to Uganda
40 years after one the most famous commando operations in history, Sayeret Matkal's soldiers recount the events that culminated in the release of 106 hostages from an airport terminal in Uganda: The bumpy flight, losing the element of surprise, and the arrival to the terminal. Part 2 of 5.
"I left the squadron briefing room with Yoni and accompanied him to his car, where he took out his webbing (load-bearing straps) and personal equipment. We said goodbye with a handshake, a pat on the back, and I wished him luck. As I was waiting by Yoni's car and listening to the increasing roar of the Hercules engines, someone arrived with up-to-date Mossad photographs of the Entebbe terminal. I took the photos from him and quickly ran towards the runway to the Hercules planes—some had already taken off.
"I managed to signal to the last of the Hercules (Lockheed C-130) planes—which had also already started moving—to stop and open the door. The door opened, I threw the package of photographs inside and asked that they be given to Yoni in Sharm el-Sheikh. These photos were taken by a Mossad undercover agent (‘Warrior’ in Mossad terminology —RB), a pilot who took off from Kenya in a light aircraft, flew around the (Entebbe) airport, and fled back. They were the first and last up-to-date photographs we had at our disposal in this operation.
"The Mossad agent also reported that he only saw a few dozens of Ugandan soldiers stationed around the old terminal. This information, along with the information Amiram Levin got from Paris (when he questioned the non-Jewish hostages released by the terrorists —RB)—according to which there were dozens, not hundreds of Ugandan soldiers there—carried a lot of weight in Prime Minister Rabin's decision to approve the operation."
Due to time constraints, the four Hercules planes headed out to Uganda even before the government gave the green light for the operation, and made a stopover in Sharm el-Sheikh (a port city in the Sinai Peninsula, located where the Red Sea and the Gulf of Eilat meet —ed.).
Shlomi Reisman, then a commando and first sergeant in the Amnon Team, recounts "Our vehicles were tied in a row at the center of the Hercules plane and all along its length. The Mercedes was at the back of the plane, facing out, and behind it were the two Land Rover jeeps. On both sides of the vehicles, dozens of paratroopers were lying around on the floor. We had no choice but to crowd together on the cars. Our team was sitting at the back end of the second Land Rover.
"The plane didn't have any seats, and of course it didn't have a bathroom either. If you wanted to pee, you had to pee into a jerrycan. The Hercules planes were flying low, nearly touching the ground. Four Hercules planes flying south on Saturday morning was an unusual sight, and we had to be careful that hostile radars didn't spot us and blow our cover.
"It was a hot summer day with a lot of air pockets, and the more the plane flew, the more it jumped up and down like a wild stallion. We were sitting on the vehicles, and it just made the turbulence worse. Every now and again our head would hit the ceiling. Everyone's faces around me were green; I thought I must have been the only one on the plane not throwing up. Eight more hours of that, and by the time we landed in Entebbe, the terrorists would have no one left to fight."
Amir Ofer, also a first sergeant in the Amnon Team, adds, "We got off the plane in Sharm el-Sheikh, and I asked Arik, the doctor, to give me pills against nausea and vomiting—otherwise I would've collapsed. He gave me a box of Travamin, and during the flight I took about a pill per hour until landing. I landed in Entebbe with six Travamin pills in my stomach. One of the soldiers from the first raid team collapsed from vomiting during the stopover in Sharm el-Sheikh, and we had to replace him with one of the soldiers from the backup force, Amos Goren."
Amos Goren, at the time a young staff sergeant, remembers the moment he was brought into the prestigious Muki Team. "In a moment, the nausea had passed, and my pulse started racing. The raid force was wearing leopard uniforms, like the ones the Ugandans wore, for deception. I put on my uniform and bullet-proof vest and equipped myself with explosives.
"About two minutes after we took off (from Sharm el-Sheikh), Yoni and Muki called me over for a briefing. We sat down on the Hercules plane's back door, and Yoni took a vomit bag and started sketching the terminal buildings on it. He repeated the instructions: 'You run from here; you and Muki are coming in through the first entrance; Amnon and his team are coming through the second entrance...' Muki, who knew I wasn't part of the initial training and drilling, told me to stay close to him. I folded the vomit bag, put it in my pocket, and fell asleep.
"Several years after the rescue mission I received a phone call from the Netanyahu family. Iddo, Bibi, and their father Benzion decided to conduct an in-depth investigation of the Entebbe Operation and asked me if I was willing to be interviewed for it. I didn't know if the bag had any significance to such an investigation, but I told them about it and promised I would bring it. I remember how emotional they were to see this item, the bag, which contained the last thing Yoni wrote."
At Sharm el-Sheikh, the troops waited for the government to give the green light for the operation.
"Those were frustrating hours," Danny Artidi says. "Because we were all nervous, we each withdrew inward. We each sat quietly and didn't talk to each other much. It appeared as if we were each in a period of introspection. I was thinking, 'How will the operation go? Will I come back alive? And what's going to happen to my soldiers? What is going to happen to the hostages?' We all knew there was a chance we wouldn't come back alive from this mission."
In the afternoon, despite the fact the operation has yet to receive the final approval, the troops received the green light to take off, and the planes started to make their way to Entebbe. Back in Israel, the discussions and debates were ongoing.
Giora Zussman, a captain at the time and the commander of the Zussman Team, says, "The planes were flying very low over the Red Sea, south of Sharm el-Sheikh. The view from the window was incredible—the Egyptian coast on the right and the Saudi coast on the left, and we were half-flying, half-floating over the water. I still thought they might turn us around and bring us back home, but we kept flying south and with every kilometer we passed, I realized that yes, we were about to do this."
Reisman recounts, "We were climbing high and, surprisingly, the flight was smooth and pleasant this time. We could take advantage of the time for one last nap. I was still thinking there was no way the operation was going to get the green light. When I woke up from my nap, I saw Yoni come out of the cockpit with a little smile on his face: 'We got the go-ahead from the government.'"
Shaul Mofaz, who at that time had just stepped down as Sayeret Matkal's deputy commander and later went on to become the IDF's chief of staff and then the minister of defense, says Netanyahu had been instrumental in getting that go-ahead. "Yoni was the one who provided the final stamp that the unit was ready for the operation, and his confidence in its ability to get the job done was conveyed, unfiltered, to the decision-makers," Mofaz says.
Landing in the dark terminal
The plane was slowly making its way towards Entebbe. "The flight from Sharm el-Sheikh was actually my first opportunity to sleep," says Rami Sherman, at the time the operations officer who led the backup force. "An hour before the scheduled landing time, the plane started to shake, as there was a storm raging outside. Since I knew the pilots, I could enter the cockpit, and it was from there that I watched a lightning storm the likes of which I'd never seen before.
“The storm ended, and Lake Victoria appeared below us, in all of its glory. It was a bright night with a full moon, and the view that appeared in front of me was so idyllic, so contradictory to the purpose of our flight."
"We were preparing for landing," says Pinchas Buchris, who would go on to become the director-general of the Defense Ministry but at the time was one of the younger commandos, a sergeant in the Yiftach Team. "I remember that Yoni Netanyahu came out of the Mercedes and went to each of the commandos, shook his hand, and wished him luck. When he got to me, I smiled at him. He touched my head and asked, 'What are you smiling for, Buchris?' shook my hand, and went back to the Mercedes."
Reisman tells, "After he went to each of the commandos, Yoni turned around and hopped back into the Mercedes, which in a few minutes was to slide down the tail of the plane. It was to drive first, with Yoni leading us in the front seat next to Amitzur, the driver. The Hercules started slowly gliding down ahead of the landing. The three other planes separated from us and stayed circling over the lake.
"The plan was that seven minutes after us—in the hope that we could surprise (the hijackers and the Ugandan soldiers), and while we were in the midst of fighting—two additional Hercules planes would land with two teams in armored cars that would quickly join us, carrying 30 additional commandos from the unit. They would spread around the terminal and secure us and the hostages we were to release."
Arditi recalls, "The last part (of the flight) was completely dark. We couldn't see anything—only hear. You find yourself inside a dark mass that is supposed to land somewhere, and as soon as it lands and the doors open, the operation is in our hands. I distinctly remember this switch from a situation in which you're completely passive and dependent on the pilots, the planes, and luck to the point in which you're dependent a lot more on your own actions."
"As soon as the wheels of the plane touched the ground, I released the safety catch and cocked my weapon," Amir Ofer remembers. "Ilan, who was sitting next to me, yelled at me, 'You don't cock your weapon on the plane!!' He was right, of course, but I answered, 'Shut up! This is a real war!' and the door opened.
“I knew we were on the equator, and I was expecting to see Africa as I had imagined it—lions, giraffes, and a jungle. Instead we saw a standard airport runway, with low lights all along it on the left and right. We turned on the lights and started driving. The plane disappeared into the darkness behind us, and the farther away we drove, the lonelier I felt: three small vehicles, in the heart of darkness, beyond the mountains of darkness (a place in Jewish tradition where the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel are believed to have been exiled by the Assyrian King Shalmaneser V —ed.)."
The convoy was led by the black Mercedes, followed by two jeeps. Adam Coleman, at the time a staff sergeant in the Zussman Team, was riding with Netanyahu in the Mercedes. "There were three rows of seats. The car was freshly painted black and beautiful. Two days earlier it had been white. There were two (Ugandan) flags on the hood, and the front row seated three people."
"We were driving towards the old terminal, which was faintly lit, and saw the control tower, which was also in darkness. No one was talking in the car; we were driving in complete silence. We saw a guard post and a barbed-wire fence coming up on the right and blocking part of the road. Next to the guard post, a soldier rose to attention, his rifle pointing straight ahead in a form of salute.
"A tense discussion started about what we were going to do. Muki said the guard was saluting, so we had nothing to worry about. Yoni disagreed and wanted to kill the soldier. Yoni and Muki started giving Amitzur the driver different instructions. 'Amitzur, go left, go right, go left.' And Amitzur did as he was told, went left, and then right. Eventually he broke to the right towards the soldier after being ordered to by Yoni, who must have decided not to leave any Ugandan soldiers behind. He tried to shoot the soldier out of the moving vehicle with his Beretta 0.22 handgun that had a suppressor on it. But he was in an impossible posture; he didn't have a chance. The car was moving slowly but didn't stop.
"The moment went by incredibly slowly. The guard was at attention, his rifle aimed directly at me, and Yoni was with his body hanging outside the window, trying unsuccessfully to shoot him. The car kept driving and the rifle's barrel got past me with no shot having been fired—what a relief that was! The guard didn't even realize what was happening. Other than the faint sound of the Beretta's suppressed shot, everything remained quiet, and we could breathe easy for a moment. And then a long burst of gunfire came from behind us—someone from the Land Rovers shot the guard—and it was followed soon after by another burst of fire."
There are other versions of that incident. Muki Betzer says, "The Ugandan soldier, who was alone, raised his weapon as we were driving towards him without any urgency, and called out, 'Advance!' He didn't cock his weapon, didn't make any indications he was about to open fire—he just raised his weapon. I was familiar with this Ugandan procedure of raising the weapon and calling 'Advance.' I knew this was just procedure and that we could get past the soldier without worrying."
Alex Davidi, a staff sergeant in the Muki Team who was sitting in the back seat of the Mercedes on the right side by the window, says, "The Ugandan soldier raised his weapon, shouted something, and I saw a green tracer bullet coming out of it and passing by the Mercedes. Yoni and Giora Zussman put their hands out of the window and shot at the Ugandan with suppressed handguns. The car kept moving forward and passed by the soldier, with him to our right. He was still standing. To me, the war had begun. I also put my hand out of the window and joined the gunfire with a non-suppressed gun. The Ugandan was hit and tripped backwards."
Behind the Mercedes, in one of the Land Rover jeeps, was Rani Cohen, at the time a second lieutenant in the Yiftach Team. "I was sitting on the right side of the jeep, so I only saw the guard on the right," he says. "He was in a shooting position and yelling something. They shot at him from the Mercedes. I saw him fall, but he kept moving, so I shot a few single rounds at him until we drove past."
Pinchas Buchris also joined the shooting. "A loud burst was fired right next to me, which was probably aimed at the guard on the left, who started running away," he says. "I heard someone yell, 'Buchris, shoot!' I shot the fleeing guard. He was killed in the third burst from the MAG (a machine gun —ed.). Later I learned that the person who ordered me to shoot was Amnon Peled."
Coleman remembers, "Yoni shouted to Amitzur, the driver, 'Hit the gas!' We realized we had lost the element of surprise. Our nerves hiked up as we advanced towards the building, which was in the process of waking up and was ready for us. We couldn't see anything, just hear the sound of gunfire and see some sparks from the bullets.
"The Mercedes stopped about 40 meters from the building, while the two Land Rovers came to a halt next to it and behind it. The building was similar to what we saw in the photos—but also not so much. It was a two-story building, with big windows up front, and a sort of an arcade of pillars. The ground floor was partially dark—there was only faint lighting on the outside—while the second floor was dark. On the left, the control tower popped up, as if growing right out of the earth, and it, too, was dark. Yoni was standing next to the car and yelling, 'Come on, charge! Come on, charge!'
"We were slowly getting out of the car. Those of us in the back row were stuck until the middle row, where the Amnon Team was, got out, and it was only after Zussman got out that my team could get out as well. Yoni was standing outside by the Mercedes and realized that things weren't moving, that the guys weren't coming out of the car, and that our assault was stuck. And he yelled at us 'Come on, charge! Come on, charge!' and a thought crossed through my mind that this was just like in the movies, or in our drilling, and then Yoni ran forward and charged, leading the force after him, and released the jam. A true commander, a brave man. This was the last time I saw him."
Part 3 of this story recounts the intense battle inside the terminal and how the commandos rescued the hostages.
Dr. Ronen Bergman is Yedioth Ahronoth's chief military and intelligence correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @ronenbergman
Lior Ben-Ami is the head of Yedioth Ahronoth's investigative team. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org