Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe by noted historian Saul David keeps readers glued to the page in a definitive account of the IDF operation.
Mention the name Entebbe and the first thing that comes to mind is the IDF’s raid on Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Following the hijacking of an Air France plane with 248 passengers aboard, the IDF staged a daring counter-terrorist rescue mission, rescuing the hostages. Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was killed in the operation. The rescue took place on July 4, 1976.
Operation Thunderbolt, as it was called at the time, was an incredible military achievement which demonstrated both Israel’s refusal to negotiate with terrorists and its far-reaching concern for its citizens. The operation was also named, retroactively, Operation Yonatan, in memory of its fallen commander.
The raid has been memorialized in books, documentaries, and in at least three major film productions. Many are familiar with the particulars of the mission—the low-flying Hercules military transport planes; the black Mercedes that looked like President Idi Amin’s vehicle; the subsequent murder of Dora Bloch, a 75-year-old Israeli-British citizen who was hospitalized and not at the airport terminal at the time of the raid. We know all this, so what more is there to say about the rescue mission? Quite a bit.
In Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe (Little, Brown and Company, December 2015), acclaimed military historian Saul David provides readers with a definitive account of what he calls one of the greatest Special Forces mission ever. The Entebbe story presented on the pages of this book reads almost like a thriller. Tension builds minute by minute with a narrative told from many angles – the hostages, the soldiers, the politicians, and even the terrorists themselves.
Israeli cabinet debates pitted the cautious, professional Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin against Defense Minister Shimon Peres, who was more gung-ho about launching a military operation. The rivalry between Yonatan Netanyahu and Ehud Barak over who would command the operation is reported, as are considerations for a possible parachuting of naval commandos into Lake Victoria.
The book details the secret negotiations with the Kenyan government in order to secure permission to refuel the Israeli planes in Nairobi. Efforts to enlist U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and other foreign governments to intervene on behalf of the hostages are included, although the role of the French following the hijacking of their plane is not exactly clear.
Along with the behind-the-scenes planning, the book also reports human interest elements of the hostages’ prolonged ordeal. On the plane, one informs the female hijacker that her blouse is unbuttoned, exposing a very feminine bra. In the Entebbe terminal, two young hostages get together for a late night tryst behind a counter. The meager meals the hostages received are described, as is their washing clothing and hanging it to dry outside the building.
The author’s meticulous research is evident on every page and is based on extensive interviews with the participants. Presenting facts of a military operation is a challenging task, but the author succeeds in keeping readers glued to the page, something usually only seen in works of fiction. All of this makes for a very descriptive and informative account of the Entebbe operation, one that could serve as basis for another major motion picture on the subject.
Saul David is a military historian and broadcaster. He is the author of The Indian Mutiny; Military Blunders; Zulu: the Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879; Victoria’s Wars; and other non-fiction titles, as well as two novels.