On 27 June 1976, Air France Flight 139, an Airbus A300 (Airbus A300B4-203), registration F-BVGG (c/n 019), originated from Tel Aviv, Israel, carrying 246 passengers and a crew of 12. 58 passengers waited to board at the Athens airport, including four hijackers.
The flight took off from Athens, Greece headed for Paris. Soon after the 12:30 pm takeoff, the flight was hijacked by two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP-EO) and two Germans from the German Revolutionary Cells—Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann. The hijackers diverted the flight to Benghazi, Libya. There it was held on the ground for seven hours for refuelling. During that time the hijackers released a female hostage who pretended to have a miscarriage. The plane left Benghazi, and at 3:15 pm on the 28th, more than 24 hours after the flight's original departure, it arrived at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
At Entebbe, the four hijackers were joined by at least four others, supported by the pro-Palestinian forces of Uganda's President, Idi Amin. They demanded the release of 40 Palestinians held in Israel and 13 other detainees imprisoned in Kenya, France, Switzerland, and West Germany. They threatened that if these demands were not met, they would begin to kill hostages on 1 July 1976.
The hijackers separated the Israelis and Jews from the larger group and forced them into another room. That afternoon, 47 non-Israeli hostages were released. The next day, 101 more non-Israeli hostages were allowed to leave on board an Air France aircraft. More than 100 Israeli and Jewish passengers, along with the non-Jewish pilot Captain Bacos, remained as hostages.
Captain Michel Bacos then told the hijackers that all passengers, including those who remained, were his responsibility and that he would not leave them behind. Bacos's entire crew followed suit. A total of 85 Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish hostages remained, plus 20 others, most of whom were the crew of the Air France plane.
As the crisis unfolded, attempts were made to solve the crisis by negotiating the release of the hostages. According to declassified diplomatic documents, the Egyptian government under Sadat tried to negotiate with both the PLO and the Ugandan government, and special envoy Hanni al Hassan was sent to negotiate in Uganda. The slow pace of hesitant diplomacy was contrasted by the increasingly urgent behind-the-scenes military preparation by the Israeli government for a rescue attempt.
Lt. Col. Joshua Shani, lead pilot of the operation, later said that the Israelis had initially conceived of a rescue plan that involved dropping naval commandos into Lake Victoria. The commandos would have ridden rubber boats to the airport located on the edge of the lake. They planned to kill the hijackers and after freeing the hostages, ask Amin for passage home. The Israelis abandoned this plan because they lacked the time necessary.
A mission was selected that would involve two 707s, four C-130s, and a 29-man assault unit led by Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, this force was composed entirely of commandos from Sayeret Matkal.
As the task force's route flew over Sharm al-Sheikh and down the international flight path over the Red Sea, mostly flying at a height of no more than 100 ft to avoid radar detection by Egyptian, Sudanese, and Saudi Arabian forces. Near the south outlet of the Red Sea the C-130s turned south and passed south of Djibouti. From there, they went to a point northeast of Nairobi, Kenya, likely across Somalia and the Ogaden area of Ethiopia. They turned west, passing through the African Rift Valley and over Lake Victoria.
Two Boeing 707 jets followed the cargo planes. The first Boeing contained medical facilities and landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. The commander of the operation, General Yekutiel Adam, was on board the second Boeing, which circled over Entebbe Airport during the raid.
The Israeli forces landed at Entebbe at 23:00 IST, with their cargo bay doors already open. A black Mercedes that looked like President Idi Amin's vehicle and Land Rovers that usually accompanied Amin's Mercedes were brought along. The Israelis hoped they could use them to bypass security checkpoints. When the C130s landed, Israeli assault team members drove the vehicles to the terminal building in the same fashion as Amin. As they approached the terminal, two Ugandan sentries, aware that Idi Amin had recently purchased a white Mercedes, ordered the vehicles to stop.
The commandos disabled the sentries using silenced pistols, but did not kill them. As they pulled away, however, an Israeli commando in one of the following Land Rovers killed them with an unsuppressed rifle. Fearing the hijackers would be alerted prematurely, the assault team quickly approached the terminal.
The Israelis sprang from their vehicles and burst towards the terminal. The hostages were in the main hall of the airport building, directly adjacent to the runway. Entering the terminal, the commandos shouted through a megaphone, "Stay down! Stay down! We are Israeli soldiers," in both Hebrew and English.
According to hostage Ilan Hartuv, Wilfried Böse was the only hijacker who, after the operation began, entered the hall housing the hostages. At first he pointed his Kalashnikov rifle at hostages, but "immediately came to his senses" and ordered them to find shelter in the restroom, before being killed by the commandos. According to Hartuv, Böse fired only at Israeli soldiers and not at hostages.
At one point, an Israeli commando called out in Hebrew, "Where are the rest of them?" referring to the hijackers. The hostages pointed to a connecting door of the airport's main hall, into which the commandos threw several hand grenades. They then entered the room and shot dead the three remaining hijackers, ending the assault.
Meanwhile, the other three C-130 Hercules had landed and unloaded armoured personnel carriers to provide defense during the anticipated hour of refueling, destroy Ugandan MiG fighter planes to prevent them from pursuing, and for intelligence-gathering.
During the reloading of the Israeli C-130s, Israeli commander Yonatan Netanyahu was shot in the chest and killed, possibly by a Ugandan sniper. He was the only Israeli commando killed in the operation. At least five other commandos were wounded. Israeli commandos fired light machine guns and an RPG back at the control tower, suppressing the Ugandans' fire. The Israelis finished evacuating the hostages, loaded Netanyahu's body into one of the planes, and left Entebbe Airport.
The entire operation lasted 53 minutes—of which the assault lasted only 30 minutes. All seven hijackers present, and between 33 and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed. About 11 Ugandan Army Air Force MiG-17 fighter planes were destroyed on the ground at Entebbe Airport.
Out of the 106 hostages, three were killed, one was left in Uganda, and approximately 10 were wounded. The 102 rescued hostages were flown home to Israel.
Idi Amin had all four flight controllers executed summarily for their failure to see the approaching C-130s.
The C-130s were met en route by Israeli fighters and escorted to Tel Nof Air Base south of Tel Aviv. After debriefing, they went on to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, where a huge reception awaited.
The raid went down in military lore and legend, and Operation Thunderbolt was renamed Operation Jonathan in honor of the fallen commander.