Seven minutes after the first Hercules C-130 landed, three more followed at intervals. The third plane to land carried four armoured vehicles and more commandos.
Among those on the plane was Eyal Oren.
“Our Hercules was the third plane in the order of landing, we were telling jokes revolving around the risk to the second and third planes. If we came under fire, it would end our visit to Uganda before we could even set foot on its soil.”
The group with armoured vehicles was to cut off any reinforcement coming from the Entebbe direction and also cover the back of the terminal building. As the group headed behind the terminal building, they soon came under fire.
Staff sergeant Eyal Yardenai was part of the holding force driving a Land Rover.
He fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) at the Control Tower where sustained fire was coming from. Yardenai says: “The Control Tower had a lot of windows and we came under extensive fire from there. I took the RPG launcher from the Land Rover and fired a rocket at the top of the tower, and caused a huge explosion.”
Omer Bar-Lev led a force of armoured vehicles.
He says: “I called Yoni on the communication and he didn’t answer. We were under fire. I had a big spotlight on my armoured vehicle; I aimed it where the MiG planes were supposed to be. And, indeed, we saw them in two rows; one had five MiG 21s, and the other had three MiG 17s.”
Omer asked for permission to destroy the MiGs he had seen but there was no response. When he made a decision to destroy them at first, the machines either jammed or missed the target.
He says: “I made a decision, and ordered one of the guys on the team to get off the armoured vehicle and hit the MiGs.
He missed, I then told Yaakov, (who was) manning the grenade launcher, to open fire, and he managed to fire one or two grenades before the weapon jammed. I was manning the MAG (machine gun) on top of the armoured vehicle, started shooting at the MiGs. Before long, one of them which must have been full of fuel exploded, and an incredibly beautiful burst of fire shot up into the night sky. This set the rest of the planes on fire and burned them down.”
A member of the search team in the terminal building, Adam Coleman, says: “We were standing at the edge of the building, and we saw the MiGs burning. It was spectacular, like a scene from a war movie, with the MiGs’ tails sticking out from between the flames. But it wasn’t a movie. This was the reality we created.”
As the MiGs were up in flames, the hostages also started to make their way to the waiting rescue plane. Staff Sergeant Amos Goren was one of those who stormed the hall where the hostages had been kept and had to escort them to the waiting plane. Goren says: “We told the hostages to get ready to leave and to not take anything with them. They were still in shock and looked confused. When the order to evacuate came several people started crawling towards the door afraid to get up.”
Those injured, like one flight attendant, had to be carried out of the hall. Amir Ofer, a staff sergeant in Amnon Peled’s team and the first commando to storm into the passengers’ hall, recalled having to carry a half-dressed French flight attendant out of the room.
Ofer says: “Most of the hostages had already headed out to the planes, and only the injured and dead remained in the room. I had the honour of carrying a lightly injured French flight attendant on my shoulders, dressed in only her undergarments. She was lightly hurt from a ricochet and could not walk. I told her to get up and walk, but she almost fainted from hysteria.”
Ofer would come under fire as he carried the wounded flight attendant to the rescue plane. “For the second time that night, I heard that ghastly ‘whoosh’ and I cursed the flight attendant in my heart and thought I have used up my luck to the last inch. After the terrorist who shot a burst of gunfire at me from 10 metres missed, and two others almost shot at me from two metres behind me, (I thought to myself) ‘I am not going to get killed because of this spoilt Frenchwoman who is too lazy to walk because of a few scratches’.”
Looking for war souvenirs
With the hostages freed and the airport more or less in their control, the Israeli commandos set about looking for operation mementos. Amos Goren says: “I took the Kalashnikov of the terrorist I shot and the handgun of the German terrorist.” He was not the only one to do this.
Staff sergeant Shlomi Reisman got a spear from one of the soldiers he killed during the combing of the building. “There was a body of a Ugandan soldier near the boxes who caught me by surprise during the raid. I bent down and took his brand new spear which was attached to his load-bearing straps.”
Coleman’s first choice as his war trophy was hard to get, but it didn’t deter him from looking elsewhere. “It is the basic nature of a hunter claiming a skull, a scalp, or a weapon. I went back to the fighting area; I wanted to take the weapon off the first Ugandan soldier I killed but the weapon was clasped tightly in his hands, and I could not pull it free. I ran to the second soldier, I took the weapon and ran back without fear and with the confidence of the victorious.”
He got a German-made Heckler and Koch G3 gun, which he proudly showed off to his colleagues while on the plane back home.
Dr Arieh Shalev was a medical personnel attached to Bar-Lev’s team during the operation. He was aboard the last plane to take off. He says: “As the last ones to take off, we threw small explosives with suspended detonators and smoke grenades onto the main runway to prevent a tactical offensive by the enemy.”
Bar-Lev was the last Israeli soldier on the Ugandan soil during the operation. He and his team wanted to check the hijacked plane if there was no one they have left behind. But he had a second thought that perhaps it was booby-trapped. He dropped the idea.
He and his soldiers went back to the last plane and he watched them board vehicles first.
But that was not before the Uganda army sent reinforcement to the airport to counter the Israelis. Omer’s fire cover group, before boarding the plane, saw the Uganda army reinforcement arrive and had to stand up to them other than risk being shot at while in the air.
Bar-Lev says: “Reinforcement on moving vehicles came from the administrative entrance to the airport with lights glaring. We opened fire at them. Minutes later we received the last order: Get to the Hercules. We got off our armoured vehicle, and Yoav Wachsman, the driver, got it onto the plane. The soldiers boarded, and then I followed. I was the last Israeli soldier on Ugandan soil that night.”
In the fifth and last part tomorrow, read about the journey from Entebbe, the unexpected stopover in Nairobi and the tense moments that followed until the Hercules planes were met mid-air by Israeli fighter jets that provided them cover from possible attacks. Apart from the news of Yoni’s death that dampened the mood of the commandos for moments, it was all jubilation afterwards.