On July 27th 1976, Air France Flight 139 was hijacked by terrorists and flown to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. In the following agonizing days, Israeli passengers were singled out and held hostage. A week later on July 4th, one hundred Israeli commandos raced 2,500 miles from Israel to Entebbe, landed in the middle of the night, and in a heart-stopping mission that lasted ninety minutes, killed all guerillas and freed 103 hostages.
In captivating detail, Stevenson provides a fast-paced hour-by-hour narration from the hijacking to the final ninety-minute mission. In addition to the incredible rescue itself, Stevenson also discusses the political backdrop behind the hijacking, especially Ugandan President Idi Amin’s support for the hijackers, which marked one of the first times a leader of a nation had backed terrorist activities. An illustration of one nation’s undying spirit, heroism, and commitment to its people in the face of threat, Operation Thunderbolt has become a legendary anti-terrorist tale.
Although first written in 1976 (and published within weeks of the event), Stevenson presents an account of terrorism that is still relevant in our modern-day political climate. A factual account of what could easily be read as sensational fiction, 90 Minutes at Entebbe will inspire, encourage, and instill hope in all readers.
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About the Author
William Stevenson was trained in aerial espionage as a British naval fighter pilot during World War II. A respected historian and expert on covert warfare, he was the author of sixteen books, including Intrepid’s Last Case, Kiss the Boys Goodbye, and Ninety Minutes at Entebbe. He died in 2013.
Uri Dan was born in 1935. A veteran Israeli journalist, he served as the chief correspondent of Maariv, an Israeli newspaper, and as the Israel correspondent for The New York Post. Dan gained fame as the spokesman and confidante of Israel’s former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He died in 2006.
Read an Excerpt
90 Minutes at Entebbe
The Full Inside Story of the Spectacular Israeli Counter-Terrorism Strike and the Daring Rescue of 103 Hostages
By William Stevenson
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 1976 William Stevenson
All rights reserved.
WHERE IS FLIGHT 139?
The woman who walked into the transit lounge at Athens Airport at 6:17 a.m. on Sunday, June 27, 1976, wore a dark denim skirt, light blue blouse, and flat-heeled shoes. Her eyes were slightly bloodshot and her face was marked by acne scars. She looked in her late twenties and stood silent beside a quietly dressed young man who had flown this far with her aboard Singapore Airlines Flight 763 from Bahrain. The pair were ticketed as Mrs. Ortega and Mr. Garcia.
Two young men with Arab passports disembarked from the same Bahrain flight but kept their distance. They too were ticketed to join Air France Flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris, due to stop over in Athens at around midday. Their names were given as Fahim alSatti and Hosni Albou Waiki.
Security was lax at Athens, where a lightning strike of ground staff was sufficiently distracting to persuade airport police not to bother with even rudimentary checks. The timing of the strike was to take on significance later. So was the observation of the one guard who seems to have been awake at Athens Airport that fateful morning. His detailed descriptions of the odd couples would suggest later that the woman was Gabriele Kroche-Tiedemann, a 24-year-old terrorist who helped kidnap oil ministers at the meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in Vienna in December 1975 and a girlfriend of another German killed more recently when his suitcase bomb exploded in Tel Aviv Airport. Gabriele had lived with Carlos, The Jackal, the world's best-known and most wanted terrorist, and her German companion on this day was a member of the Baader-Meinhof urban guerrillas.
One of the Arabs would be identified as a founder and operational planner of the terrorist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
The four travelers joined Flight 139 without passing through the metal-detection hoops. Nor was their baggage examined. Inside the Air France airbus they split up. One of the Arabs sat near Moshe Peretz, a 26-year-old medical student from Israel. Peretz, a meticulous young man, had started to scribble a kind of diary on the back of his ticket. As time progressed and scribbling became a dangerous occupation, his notes changed in character. They began as a record which Peretz thought might be fun someday to stick into an album. They finished as frantic bits of Hebrew on airsickness bags, folders, and napkins — entries that trailed into silence exactly one week and three hours later, right back where they started in Tel Aviv.
* * *
Sunday, June 27, Athens. 1100 hours.
1210 — A few moments after taking off I suddenly hear a terrible scream. My first thought is someone's fainted. I see two persons rush forward. One is a longhaired youth wearing a red shirt, gray trousers, and a beige pullover. The other has a thick mustache, wears long trousers and yellow shirt. They are running toward the first-class compartment.
1212 — Frightened and hysterical stewardesses come out of the first-class compartment. With trembling arms, they attempt to calm down the passengers, who begin to show signs of agitation. A minute later, we hear the excited voice of a woman over the plane's internal communications system. Speaking English with a foreign accent she informs us that the plane is under the control of the "Che Guevara Group" and the "Gaza Unit" of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. When I hear "Che Guevara," that frightens me, because I fear they will not hesitate to blow up the plane in the air. The hysterical voice over the loudspeaker announces that all passengers are to raise their hands above their heads and not move. At the entrance to the first-class compartment there stand two terrorists holding drawn guns and hand grenades without safety pins. They begin a close body search of the passengers. They call the passengers, one after another, and search in all the intimate parts of their bodies. Later their search becomes more superficial. They announce that anyone with a weapon in his possession is to hand it over immediately. A few passengers hand them knives and forks. I too am called, and searched in a superficial manner. The searches last till nearly 1500 hours.
1500 — I have no idea where we are flying. Suddenly, out of the windows, we see a coast, arid soil, and one poor landing strip. We guess we approach Benghazi. The plane circles the field ten times before landing. Then the commander of the terrorists — the one in the red shirt — says that we have indeed landed at Benghazi. He says the new "captain" of the plane is, from now on, Bazin el Nubazi, the leader of "Gaza." The plane, he says, will not respond to any message which does not address it as "Haifa." We wait two hours. While we wait, they put a round can, with a fuse sticking out of it, near the left-hand exit of the plane, and a square can on the right. They hold the cans in one hand, and it seems that each one weighs about 200 grams. The one in the yellow shirt says the doors have been booby-trapped with explosives to prevent them being opened. (To tell the truth, the cans do not appear very awe-inspiring.)
1700 — One of the women passengers, who reports feeling unwell, is allowed off the plane.
1715 — The terrorists have begun collecting passports. They tie them up in a nylon bag. I give them my passport, my army card, my driving license — in fact, all the documents in my possession. They threaten that anyone who does not hand over all his documents faces severe punishment. They speak in English, and one of the stewardesses translates into French. To tell the truth, the atmosphere in the plane is calm.
1800 — One of the women passengers faints, and a doctor among the passengers gives her first aid. We are still seated here, looking out of the windows. An arid landscape, four bored soldiers sitting on the runway, a few fire trucks standing nearby.
1915 — A cold supper — but not bad. The stewards serve cans of juice, with Arab inscriptions. In the meantime I have seen a blond terrorist and the German woman. She's the sort who gets things together fast. Anyone who wants to go to the toilet lifts a fingers, she shouts an order to go; in one case, when two passengers get up at the same time to go to the toilet, she screams like a veritable animal.
1925 — The "captain" (the German) announces that he regrets the upset and discomfort being caused to the passengers, and promises that we will take off as soon as possible.
2135 — At long last, in the air. Unbelievable. After 61/2 hours on the ground. Our treatment is fairly good. But where are we flying? To Damascus? Baghdad? Beirut? Tel Aviv? or Paris? The passengers conduct a kind of lottery about the destination of our flight. We speak freely to one another, with the unknown factors being our destination and the hijackers' demands.
2300 — I awake from a nap. It's very cold. I cover myself with Israeli newspapers.
* * *
Flight 139 fell silent soon after leaving Athens. The loss of radio contact stirred little action among the Greek flight controllers. But in Israel the airliner's abrupt silence began a week of tempestuous operations: the week that ran from Sunday, June 27, 1976, to Sunday, July 4; a week now preserved in Israeli intelligence files labeled Thunderbolt and surrounded by unprecedented secrecy.
The sudden disappearance of Flight 139 was registered by a special Israeli intelligence force that has no known parallel. Monitoring the world's airwaves with powerful electronic ears, and by other methods, it watches over travelers for reasons that are unique. It aims to prevent Israel from being isolated and then destroyed. That means the protection of legitimate visitors to and from the Jewish state, and the tracking of killers who wish to turn Israel into a ghetto to be besieged and undermined as if the fortress can then be alienated from the world and destroyed at leisure.
"Flight 139 with a very large number of Israelis aboard has either crashed or been hijacked," ran the first message. "The missing aircraft, an Air France airbus which left Ben-Gurion Airport (near Tel Aviv) shortly before nine this morning ..."
The message went to the Israeli cabinet, which was halfway through its routine weekly Sunday session. Minister of Transport Gad Yaakobi, a 41-year-old economist, passed it to his prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. The time was 1:30 p.m., only minutes after Flight 139 failed to transmit after the refueling stop at Athens.
Prime Minister Rabin, a retired general, formerly chief of Israel's military staff, told Yaakobi, who had served as a soldier and finally as a second lieutenant: "If it's hijacked, you take charge of information ..."
Gad Yaakobi understood in what sense he was now on the firing line. The junior lieutenant was about to learn the burdens of high rank.
More information began streaming in. Thoughts of lunch vanished. "The missing airbus left here with 245 passengers and 12 crew," reported the Ben-Gurion Airport security men already combing their files. "We believe 83 Israelis — but perhaps more because some passengers have citizenship in other countries ... an unknown number of Arabs are believed to have transferred to Flight 139 from a Singapore flight that landed in Athens shortly before the airbus ..."
A crisis management team was formed at 3:30 p.m., two hours after the first intelligence report, and 15 minutes before the routine cabinet session broke up. The team consisted of the prime minister and five members of his cabinet. With them was the chief of staff, Mordechai Gur, a formidable general whose paratroop commandos had won him a reputation for swift and unexpected action.
Each member of this crisis task force was supported by specialists: experts on the new international network of terrorists whose attacks on Israel had the same ideological significance as bombings in Ireland; experts on antipiracy tactics; military, political, and diplomatic experts. They drew together swiftly and smoothly. This sort of emergency had happened before, though never on this scale. Nobody yet knew if Flight 139 was a total loss or in the hands of terrorists seeking one melodramatic act of homicide. Or it could be in the grip of a new breed of sophisticated hijackers trained in airline operations and political blackmail.
"I fear the last," Prime Minister Rabin confided to the defense scientific adviser, Dr. Yehezkel Dror. "Face the fact! Our enemies have never had such a catch before — perhaps one hundred Jews who may have relatives of power and influence all over the world, any one of whom might crack under pressure."
The professor had once written a study: "How to Deal with Terrorism Linked with Mad Regimes."
He had no notion how prophetic this was. Nor could Defense Minister Shimon Peres guess that his own arguments in the cabinet earlier that day cast a shadow over coming events, when he replied to criticism of the Westwind, a civilian jet built with Israeli ingenuity but also with Israeli tax money. The Westwind was an investment in Israel's future aircraft industry, said Peres, adding ironically: "Even President Idi Amin of Uganda chose it against the world's best."
That Uganda's dictator had his own Israeli-built Westwind jet was, on Sunday, June 27, an idle joke. So far as anyone knew, the stolen Flight 139 airbus was still in the air but flying southward, instead of northwest toward its scheduled destination, Paris.
Paris was groaning in the worst heat wave in a hundred years. All who could, fled the city. French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing was flying to join U.S. President Ford at a summit conference in Puerto Rico. With him were key French government ministers. Anyone awaiting Flight 139 at the Charles de Gaulle Airport saw only that beside the landing time of 1335 GMT (1435 Paris time) appeared the single bleak word DELAYED.
"Attention!" The voice of a ground-hostess cut through the noise. "Attention, s'il vous plaît ..." Few of the perspiring relatives and friends heard or fully comprehended the brief announcement. "Air France apologizes for the delay in arrival of Flight 139. Those awaiting Flight 139 will please come to the central Air France office."
At precisely the time scheduled for arrival in Paris, the missing airbus was on the final approach to land at Benghazi, Libya. This aroused the worst fears.
It was dusk in Israel when the crisis task force began a grim vigil. By then, certain facts were emerging. The hijackers had prepared for Libya as the opening move in some complicated game. They were experts in the new kind of "war" against Israel waged by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), whose chief of operations was Dr. Wadi Hadad.
Dr. Hadad commanded an international army of fanatics armed with weapons of terror. Israeli intelligence believed he had moved out of strife-torn Lebanon to some more secure base in Africa to train young disciples of violent revolution who might not share his hatred of Zion but did want to share his arsenals and the knowledge of his trained guerrillas. The immediate fear was that this was a repetition of the takeover by Hadad's men of a Belgian airliner that was forced back to Ben-Gurion Airport in May 1972. On that occasion, Israeli commandos disguised as mechanics and ground attendants had recaptured the airliner, killing 2 Arab gunmen, but saving 97 passengers.
If the hijackers were following a careful plan, as indicated by Israel's electronic ears tuned to African and Arab radio traffic, General Gur's commandos would have an unpleasant task ahead. They began moving quietly into position on Ben-Gurion Airport, wearing the white coveralls of mechanics or the casual summer clothes of passengers.
It seemed that Flight 139 would return here, directed by Dr. Hadad's experts in terror and blackmail.
Confrontation with Flight 139's hijackers, if they landed in Israel, would require all the prime minister's powers of self-control. Hitting the hijackers meant the risk of killing innocent passengers. The world would condemn Israel. So Rabin prepared for prolonged negotiations, setting up a command post in the office of El Al's general manager, Mordechai Ben-Ari, who had created a great airline out of his early career moving refugees from Nazi death camps by an underground network of improvised transports.CHAPTER 2
AN AFRICAN DICTATOR TAKES OVER
From London during Sunday night came the first detailed description of the hijackers. It suggested that two Germans were in charge; that the terrorists were indeed following a carefully calculated plan; and that Flight 139 would end up somewhere "friendly to the terrorists." These important clues came from a young Englishwoman, Patricia Heyman, age 30, who persuaded her captors to release her at Benghazi because she was in advanced pregnancy and in danger of giving premature birth.
Pat Heyman held a British passport but her home was in Petach Tikva, Israel. She said nothing until a regular Libyan Airlines plane brought her to London. There Scotland Yard took over. In five hours, she passed from the hands of political pirates to specialists in antiterrorist tactics. Whatever the placatory mood of governments, the police of the free world had created their own international underground for the exchange of intelligence.
"Five minutes after departure from Athens, Flight 139 was taken over by a German female, a German male, and what appear to be three Arabs, according to the released hostage," London reported to Israel. "All appear to be armed. Explosives, apparently disguised as cans of dates, were placed at exit doors of aircraft Benghazi is described as stopover only. Central Africa appears to be final destination."
Three hours after midnight on the second day, Monday, June 28, Israel's defense minister drove wearily back from the airport to his Tel Aviv office on the second floor of military headquarters. Shimon Peres, born in Poland in 1923, had been sent to Palestine at the age of 11 as the child chosen to represent a Jewish family which entertained little hope of joining him in the creation of a nation that would protect Jews from further persecution.
"If Israel means anything," Peres told himself now, "it means Jews can go anywhere as free men without fear. We can't give in to blackmail."
He had just learned that Flight 139 was on the ground at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. He knew something about Uganda and its president, Idi Amin, because for some years Israel had cultivated the dictator and trained his airmen. There was a more ironic reason. Uganda was once touted as the place where Jews could establish their first homeland in 2000 years. Uganda had been the alternative to the Palestine that became Israel.
Peres passed through the security points, disguising his anxiety with brief smiles, already aware of the need to maintain confidence and discourage rumors of disaster. In his office waited General Gur and intelligence advisers, with maps and photographs spread over a long desk.
"It's more than 4000 kilometers," said Gur, answering the defense minister's unspoken question. "We're working on military options, but the distance is enormous and the territory between is hostile."
Excerpted from 90 Minutes at Entebbe by William Stevenson. Copyright © 1976 William Stevenson. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Where Is Flight 139?,
2. An African Dictator Takes Over,
3. Terrorism and Mad Regimes,
4. The Options,
5. "Where the Hell Is Uganda?",
6. The Terrorists' Ultimatum,
7. Track A: Surrender?,
8. Shift to Track B: Attack,
9. Dr. Hadad: Planner of Terror,
10. Intelligence Filters In,
11. Amin: The PLO Puppet,
12. The General Staff Examines Track B,
13. The Invisibles,
14. The Night of the Dry Run,
15. The Hippos Assemble,
16. Thunderbolt: GO!,
17. Into Africa,
18. "Yonni's Been Hit!",
19. Dora Bloch Vanishes,
20. "Refuel at Nairobi!",
21. Idi Gets the News from Tel Aviv,
22. "I Am Distressed for Thee, My Brother Jonathan",
A Personal Note,
United Nations Security Council Debate,
Transcript of Three Telephone Conversations Between Colonel Baruch Bar-Lev and President Idi Amin,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great historical documentation of what happened at Entebe. I highly recommend this book to all students of history.
Where are the Israeli politicians when the USA needs them? Our military is the IDF'S equal or better. If only our civilian leadership would get behind our guys the way the Israeli government does, we might not have the messy world situation we have now. The story of this rescue was taut and highly charged. Even though I knew the outcome, I had to read every detail and could not put it down until I finished it.