Before the official approval of the operation to rescue the hostages was made by the prime minister, four Hercules planes left the Israel capital. They first stopped at Sharm el-Sheikh, a port city in the Sinai Peninsula where the Red Sea and the Gulf of Eilat meet.
Sayeret Matkal intelligence officer Avi Weiss saw the last plane to leave Tel Aviv for Sharm el-Sheikh. “I left the squadron briefing room with Yoni (Netanyahu), we said goodbye with a handshake, a pat on the back, and I wished him luck. As I was waiting, someone arrived with up to date Mossad photographs of the Entebbe terminal. I took the photos and quickly ran towards the runway. I managed to signal to the last of the Hercules, a Lockheed C-130, to stop and open the door. I threw the package of photographs inside and asked that they be given to Yoni in Sharm el-Sheikh.”
The photographs had been taken by a ‘warrior’, a Mossad terminology for an undercover agent.
He had flown from Kenya in a light aircraft, flew around Entebbe airport, took the photos and flew back to Nairobi. Weiss says these were the last up-to-date pieces of information they had.
First sergeant Shlomi Reisman was in the Amnon Team. He recounts the transport arrangement in the plane he was in: “Our vehicles were tied in a row at the centre 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. Our team was sitting at the back end of the second Land Rover.”
The flight to Sharm el-Sheikh was not a smooth one for the soldiers. “The plane didn’t have any seats, and didn’t have a bathroom. If you wanted to pee, you had to pee into a jerrycan. It was a hot summer day 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. Everyone’s face around me was 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.”
First sergeant Amir Ofer, also in the Amnon Team, adds: “We got off the plane in Sharm el-Sheikh, and I asked the doctor to give me pills against nausea and vomiting – otherwise I would have collapsed. 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.”
At Sharm el-Sheikh, the troops waited for clearance for the operation to proceed. Waiting time as they held off for clearance took its toll on the soldiers. Danny Artidi describes the time spent at Sharm el-Sheikh: “Those were frustrating hours because we were all nervous, 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 would not come back alive from this mission.”
When the clearance finally came, the four planes flew south along the Red Sea in a formation low enough not to be detected by the radars of Iran and Egypt. Captain Giora Zussman, who commanded the Zussman Team, says: “The planes were flying very low over the Red Sea, south of Sharm el-Sheikh, and with every kilometer we passed, I realised that yes, we were about to do this.”
Landing at Entebbe
Rami Sherman was commanding the backup forces travelling in the fourth plane which was the last to land at Entebbe. He said: “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 entered the cockpit, and it was from there that I watched a lightning storm. When it ended 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.”
In another plane carrying the Yiftach team was Sergeant Pinchas Buchris. On the same plane was Yoni Netanyahu and his attack team. Buchris said: “I remember Yoni Netanyahu came out of the Mercedes and went to each of the commandos, shook his hand, and wished him luck, and went back to the Mercedes.”
Having wished his troops good luck, Yoni went back, sat in the Mercedes Benz and waited for the landing to lead the troops into battle. Shlomi Reisman says: “The Hercules started slowly gliding down ahead of the landing. The plan was that seven minutes after us while we were in the midst of fighting two additional Hercules planes would land with two teams in armoured cars that would quickly join us, carrying 30 additional commandos. They would spread around the terminal and secure us and the hostages we were to release.”
To some of the soldiers, the Entebbe raid was their first Africa adventure and they were looking forward to taking in the scenery.
Arditi recalls, “I knew we were on the Equator, and I was expecting to see Africa as I had imagined it; lions, giraffes, and the 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.”
When the first plane landed the vehicles rolled off the plane.
In the lead was a black Mercedes Benz, followed with two Uganda flags on both sides in the front, followed by two Jeeps. Staff sergeant Adam Coleman in the Zussman team was riding with Netanyahu in the Mercedes. He saw the first bullet and the first victim of the operation being fired and killed, respectively. “We were driving towards the old terminal, which was faintly lit. No one was talking. 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.” The two commanders disagreed on what to do with the soldier in site each giving the driver different instructions. As they got closer to the driver Yoni fired the first bullet of the operation. “Yoni must have decided not to leave any Ugandan soldiers behind. He tried to shoot the soldier 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.”
Though the first bullet missed its target it alerted those coming behind the Mercedes Benz. They didn’t have suppressed guns like Yoni had, Coleman says, and soon after there was a volley of bullets from the two Land Rovers. This killed the element of a surprise attack on the side of the Israelis. “Yoni shouted to Amitzur, the driver, hit the gas, 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; we just heard the sound of gunfire and saw some sparks from the bullets.”
Storming the terminal Building
When Yoni and part of his attack team got to the terminal building, there was a short delay, making things not move according to plan. Coleman says: “We were slowly getting out of the car. Yoni was standing outside by the Mercedes and realised 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.”
In Part III of the series tomorrow, find out how the Israeli commandos stormed the terminal building, the fire exchange that ensued in the corridors of the building, and how their commander, Yoni Netanyahu, was killed.