Books

Was Operation Thunderbolt the most daring mission in history?

18 July 2015

9:00 AM

18 July 2015

9:00 AM

Operation Thunderbolt was, Saul David contends in this gripping book, ‘the most audacious special forces operation in history’. In June 1976 Air France Flight 139, travelling from Tel Aviv to Paris via Athens, was hijacked above the Gulf of Corinth by two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two Germans from the Revolutionary Cells, a violent leftist organisation connected to the Baader-Meinhof gang. Eventually landing in Uganda at Entebbe airport, the crew and passengers were guarded by Idi Amin’s troops while the president attempted to take credit for promoting negotiations. The demands were the release of 40 pro-Palestinian militants imprisoned in five countries, within 48 hours.

Forty years ago, when an average of three planes were hijacked worldwide every month, there was no international policy of non-negotiation with terrorists and few expected Israel to raid Entebbe airport to rescue the hostages. The flight was under French jurisdiction. Israel was thousands of miles away. The Israeli Defense Forces had never previously launched an operation outside the Middle East, and had neither sufficient time nor information to do so then. Yet even many of the younger Israeli hostages were opposed to negotiation on principle. What everyone appreciated, however, was that any rescue operation would require absolute precision, as well as great courage and conviction.

This book feels a little like a military operation too. Neatly marshalled into the eight days of the action, the narrative shifts between the sweltering heat of Entebbe airport, frosty cabinet meetings in Jerusalem and tense moments at various altitudes in international airspace. As the hours tick down towards the threatened bloody dénouement, tension mounts and the atmosphere thickens until the book itself feels appropriately claustrophobic.


Having interviewed people from all sides of the story, hostage, rescuer, politician, journalist and even (former) terrorist, David ensures that there is always space for the touching human detail. There was a ‘moment of farce’ in the hijacked plane, for instance, when some of the hostages felt compelled to draw the only female hijacker’s attention to the fact that two of her blouse buttons had come undone, presenting a view of her ‘rather feminine brassiere’. Minor panic ensued as she tried to adjust things without dropping either pistol or hand grenade, with one hostage wryly speculating that they might all die simply for modesty.

Three days later, on the ground at Entebbe, some non-Israeli hostages were released to promote negotiations. Among them 12-year-old Olivier Cojot bravely carried out his father’s detailed notes on the layout of the buildings, number and locations of the terrorists, guarding arrangements etc, hidden in the turn-ups of his jeans. On release, it was only after the next wash that he remembered the precious, and now illegible, information.

Such details make this book ring true, but it is the issue of identity that lies at the heart of the story. Once at Entebbe, the Israeli hostages — children among them — were separated from the others. They endured worse conditions, more violence, and no hope of early release. The German hijackers insisted they were anti-Israeli rather than anti-Semitic, but this nuance did little to impress Yitzhak David, a survivor of Auschwitz, who challenged them with the number tattooed on his arm. As the days passed, both the nationality and ‘racial appearance’ of the hostages became steadily more relevant to their chances of survival. Some older, immigrant Israelis ‘missed their old passports’, and Operation Thunderbolt was in part motivated by the need for Israel to retain credibility as a country able to defend its own; its very raison d’être.

The legacies of the rescue operation were manifold. Arguably setting the standard for counter-terrorism, Operation Thunderbolt also marked the beginning of the end for both Idi Amin and the violent left in Germany. As Max Hastings has written, with hindsight the operation might also be regarded as marking the high point of Israel’s international standing, after which failed diplomacy and brutal suppression drained support from their policies. Hastings contends that Operation Thunderbolt deserves to be remembered, however, as ‘one of the greatest feats of arms in a humanitarian cause since the second world war’. Saul David’s page-turner, with its single clear mission, cast of distinct personalities and very filmic scenes, should help ensure this is the case.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16 Tel: 08430 600033

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Show comments
  • davidshort10

    I think the most telling incident is when, just after the Israelis landed, Yoni Netanyahu, against advice, shot and killed two Ugandan guards who did not know at the time that they were Israelis and presented no threat. The operation may have gone more smoothly if he had not been so trigger-happy. He did not survive and I for one felt little sympathy after reading that he had in effect murdered two poor, innocent rank and file soldiers If the Israelis had not killed so many Ugandan soldiers, Dora Bloch might have survived.

    • Picquet

      Doubtless if you had been in command you would have presented the more caring aspects of military assault tactics. Israel is sad that you were not available.

      • davidshort10

        Troll.

        • Picquet

          Ah. The ‘intelligent’ response. Usually seen when some witless clown is wholly unable to back up his/her assertion; frequently together with an accusation of ‘racism’, ‘sexism’ or even – God help us – Conservative leanings. You must be a soldier of significant experience and subtlety to be capable of your judgement. Care to expand, then?

          • Mark

            Were the Ugandan soldiers armed? If so they were a threat.

            This was an armed operation in which armed men faced other armed men and women.

            It was not an exercise.

            Dora Bloch would have survived had Idi Amin Al haji not been the bloodthirsty, terrorist supporting buffoon that he was.

        • Malcolm Stevas

          He’s a “troll” because he criticises you, disagrees? Childish. Your criticism is baseless, given the extreme tension of such a mission, and the need to make split-second decisions. The death of those Ugandan soldiers was sad and to be regretted but seems to have been part of the collateral damage attaching inevitably to just about any military action. In the circumstances it’s surprising there was so little.

          • Infidelissima

            well said

          • Icebow

            Doubtless he would have liked the SAS to have been more sensitive and caring when carrying out the rescue of the Iranian embassy hostages. One of those misunderstood terrorists had thirty-seven bullet holes in him, if memory serves. I mean, really.

    • Infidelissima

      more telling than hijacking a plane full of Jews because they’re Jews?

      I think it’s more telling that after 7/7, we were told ‘this has nothing to do with Islam’ and billions were given to build more mosques, as if 1,900 are not enough. It’s telling how Britain reacted to the decapitation of Lee Rigby, the mass rape of tens of thousands of British girls, and the Trojan horse school infiltration.

      The only thing that Israelis tell us with their actions is: “don’t phack with us, we will do anything for the safety of our people.” To some people this is an admirable trait. Not to weak and spineless losers.

      The thing British tell the world with their actions is: “phack us in the ar$e a bit more please, Abdul, and then take my women-folk. Oh and let’s send more money to Hamas, they’re out of rockets”

      • Icebow

        And of course Cameron says that Daesh ‘has nothing to do with Islam’, which ‘is a religion of peace’; as of course he’s not stupid enough to believe. At least, I hope he’s not.

    • Mow_the_Grass

      ‘…….murdered two poor, innocent rank and file soldiers’
      LOL
      Soldiers of the ruthless black dictator – guarding Israeli hostages – and you think that they would be ‘poor innocent blah blah….’
      Garbage ol ‘pal/ette’
      you’re another here with a little axe to grind.
      not so

      • davidshort10

        Don’t be a klutz. His own comrade advised him not to fire. Perhaps you have not read the book. Ask your mother, who I assume you live with, to buy you a copy.

        • Mow_the_Grass

          Live in the country.
          am old enough to have participated in the operation.
          Don’t need anyone to buy me a copy.
          Recommend you read – 90 Mins at Entebbe by Uri Dan (written in ’76) – whilst attempting to comment on this from the safety of your tree lined lil village somewhere in Britland.
          Putz.

    • Mark

      Were the Ugandan soldiers armed? If so they were a threat, or may have become a threat as the events unfolded.

      This was an armed operation in which armed men faced other armed men and women.

      It was not an exercise.

      Dora Bloch would have survived had Idi Amin Al haji not been the bloodthirsty, terrorist supporting buffoon that he was.

  • Infidelissima

    Israelis a phacking amazing!

  • Malcolm Stevas

    It was an extraordinary mission. I saw a brief review of this book in The Week (I think) and determined to read it: Clare Mulley’s review has confirmed my decision. Ordering it from the Spectator bookshop imminently…

    • davidshort10

      I have read it, and read it in one sitting. I don’t think the reviewer has read it. The facts were covered up until now and until now everyone thought, from the movies, that one plane went and came back and that the Israelis planned it brilliantly and made no mistakes. We all applauded. It was still a great expedition but hiding the friendly fire deaths and the murders by Yoni Netanyahu which probably directly led to his own death and the paraplegic future of a comrade due to the alert by premature firing (and YN was advised against it) takes some of the shine off it. Please don’t respond. Enough armchair warriors who have never been in conflict or hazard zones, and who probably never even had a fist fight at school, already have to an earlier comment of mine.

      • Malcolm Stevas

        You regard your opinion as inviolable? Insufferable!

        • davidshort10

          You are thick. Facts can be inviolable. Opinion is opinion. You are just a troll. Make a comment on the article and leave it at that.

          • Infidelissima

            yeah and everybody knows that opinions are like davidshort10s !

          • Malcolm Stevas

            Ah, one of the “I have access to inviolable truths so those who disagree with me are thick” brigade. If it weren’t for the Internet you lot would be limited to ranting at passers-by in Hyde Park. Your crass use of “troll” is par for the course. Infantile…

  • davidshort10

    I don’t believe the reviewer has read the book.

  • davidshort10

    Max Hastings is always going on about ‘greatest feats of arms’. He called the South Atlantic campaign the same thing. I would say the Falklands operation was a much greater feat of arms…..

  • Gilbert White

    Curious how the UN and its tentacles forgives muslims but punishes others peoples, and other peoples religions so draconically. Cannot think why this is so. The only thing muslims are really good at is killing other muslims and to a lesser extent kaffirs yet there is not one major figure imprisoned yet by due process, not even a Amin! Why did the UN allow him to retire to Jeddah he even used to go to Mc Donalds!

  • thomasaikenhead

    “Was Operation Thunderbolt the most daring mission in history?”

    No!

    If there had been any realistic or credible risk of injury or death to the rescuers them it might have been considered ‘daring’ but there was not as the casualty rates make clear.

    • Mow_the_Grass

      FO you jewhating POS.
      You are all over theses sites with your crap.
      You know nothing about military operatins.
      You know nothing about the sayeret Maktal
      You know nothing about Israeli IDF mentality viz a viz protection of citizens/family.
      Lech l’hisyn matoomtam.

      • thomasaikenhead

        Oh dear, just the latest Pottymouth, the usual aggressive, right wing, pro-Netanyahu type who simply cannot stand to see anyone express an opinion different from their own!

        Military operations, how about operation Scorch Sword or Eagle Claw the battle of Bint Jbeil?

        How about reading the Winograd commission reports?

        IDF mentality – the Dahiya doctrine, the Hannibal Directive, policy of ‘the mailed fist’, Sabra and Shatila etc.

        • Mow_the_Grass

          How much your muslim handlers paying you.
          If its the money then maybe we can make some plan.
          You obviously have the time on your hands so thats not a problem.
          Tell you one thing about Bint Jbail – it will never happen again.
          We will never loose troops while we chased the terror rats up and down the drain pipes- trying to sort good from bad.
          Next time anything south of Litani will be engaged/subdued/destroyed – just for starters.
          Tell your friends.

        • Infidelissima

          I think it’s interesting how Palis are being killed by Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and now ISIS, but nobody mentions that. Not to mention how they’re being kept in camps for 70 years by their brothers LMAO! I mean, with ‘family’ like this, who the phack needs enemies, right?

          I also find it always highly amusing when they throw each other off rooftops, my usual popcorn time.

          I’d like to remind you inbred turd how many times Israel has been defeated. You turds are so useless, 500 Million of you, can’t even destroy 7 Million Israelis.
          While you’re thinking about what pathetic losers you are, also remind yourself who won the last crusades please.

          Allah: on Israel’s side in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, first intifada, second intifada, Lebanon, 2006, 2012, 2014.

          AM ISRAEL CHAI!

          • thomasaikenhead

            “I’d like to remind you inbred turd how many times Israel has been defeated. You turds are so useless…”

            Do you feel better after venting like that?

            Dp you feel powerful and clever and grown up for using personal abuse on this site?

            Have you convinced anyone of anything?

            Anything to actually say about Operation Thunderbolt?

          • Infidelissima

            Yes, much better cheers 😀

            Definitely more clever and powerful than you, ignorant dhimmi.

            Hey, how hilarious is it how much mussies are slaughtering mussies, and then trying to deflect blame onto Jews? I find it hysterical 😀

            Keep attacking a nation stronger than you, knowing you will never win: it has brought you so much in 70 years and does not make you look like inbred sociopaths at all….LOL

          • thomasaikenhead

            Does Mommy know that you are using the keyboard again?

          • Infidelissima

            that’s all you have?
            Was your mummy raped by your uncle, and then you came along?

            you’re even more useless and pathetic than I thought you were, you must be a mussie! LOL

            LONG LIVE ISRAEL

          • thomasaikenhead

            Oh dear Infi, you do seem upset and very bitter about something?

            Is it Operation Thunderbolt being exposed as not quite the unqualified success it was once thought to be or is it the P5+1 deal that is upsetting you?

          • Infidelissima

            why would I be bitter?
            It’s not my country who’s getting phacked by Islam wrapped in sandpaper, it’s yours! ENjoy it.

      • Infidelissima

        don’t waste your energy on this inbred turd
        just tell him how much you enjoy when his mussie brothers slaughter his other mussie brothers, as that’s the only thing they’re actually good at

        if he’s not a mussie, just remind him of the tens of thousands of mass raped girls who are ignored, while more mosques are being build, so more mussies can wave their smelly ar$es in British air!
        Remind him that, unlike the Israelis who’d do anything to protect and save their own, Britain bowed to Islam even more after 7/7 and when Lee Rigby was beheaded. Tell him that while Israle spends billions each year on the Iron Dome, his government spends billions each year on Pakistan!
        Tell him that he deserves all the mussies he can get.

        AM ISRAEL CHAI!

  • Mow_the_Grass

    For another accurate account of the mission – read ’90 Minutes at Entebbe’ by Uri Dan published July ’76.

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