70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

Hostage drama with an important Hungarian player

Ervin Kaider

By Mária Markovits - 2018-02-19

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

On July 4, 1976 IDF, in a heroic action, freed more than a hundred Israeli hostages detained by Palestinian and German terrorists at the Entebbe airport in Uganda. This action, after four decades, is still being thought of as the most daring commando action. In the following, you can read the article published  in the Israeli Review on the 30th anniversary of the hostage drama:

 

Gabe Dearborne:

Alpha-Foxtrot 139[1]

 

Meeting

 

I admit I'm always a bit self-conscious when I encounter persons who had experienced fateful historical events, the so-called "small witnesses of great times." I worry that I will ask stupid things, although I'm so interested in what a person would tell. In the present case, I felt even more so, as I had a chance to talk to someone who, three or four decades ago, was a participant in the event that had astonished the whole world: he was one of those who freed the passengers of the Air France Flight 139 who had been taken hostage, abducted and redirected to the Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

 

One of our close friends is Ervin Kaidar, the former paratrooper training officer. He once told us about the Entebbe action, but it was only in a nutshell, and I got the idea at that time that I would ask him about the events in detail. Of course, without the need for an exhaustive report, since before me, others have already written just about everything about this brave action and also there have been two movies made about it. I was not even interested that much in historical credibility, or objective accuracy; rather, I wanted to find out about the impressions, thoughts, feelings, or any doubts of the person actively involved in the event.

 

Our recent encounter gave me an excellent opportunity to talk with Ervin. After we tasted his wife, Esther's delicious cooking during an informal conversation, I asked him what happened thirty years ago. Despite his old age, he still appeared young, lively, smiling and funny, ready to answer my questions, while I was trying to overcome my feeling of awe. Sitting around the small table in the living room, we were all dying to hear what Ervin was going to tell about this unforgettable undertaking.

 

“How did the action start?” I asked, while trying to formulate my next question.

 

"For you to understand the Entebbe operation, I must tell you that hijacking and abduction of civil passenger aircrafts has become a "trend" in the 1960s," Ervin began. “The 1967 Six-Day War and the occupation of the Palestinian territories have created tensions between Israel and the surrounding Arab states that have, almost right away, led to such acts of terror. In Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, there lived hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, who held Israel unanimously responsible for their fate. The humiliating defeat of the Six-Day War only increased the opposition. Then came the Fall of 1973, the Yom Kippur War started by the Arabs to perpetrate devastating blows to our country. The initial success, however, turned once again into defeat, and the Palestinian refugees felt all hope that they could ever return was lost. In the meantime, many of their leaders were jailed in Israel.”

 

"I get that," I said, "but I still do not understand what caused the terrorists to abduct the Air France flight to Uganda. Why specifically that plane and why to Uganda of all places?”

"It’s very simple," Ervin smiled. "Over the years, terrorists have been trying to incite a guerilla war in Israel, but apart from one successful experiment, the shooting at LUDD airport, which led to many casualties and even more injuries, they could not achieve much. Israel’s security measures were too strict, and it was simply impossible to circumvent them. So a flight was chosen that would take off from here, but would have to land somewhere before its destination. They wanted to bring their own people onto the plane to execute the action. It was reasonable, then, to pick the Tel-Aviv-Paris route with a stopover in Athens. This flight was the Air France Flight 139, that is, Alpha-Foxtrot 139. It took off from Ludd with a hundred passengers departing on June 27, 1976, landing in Athens after a half-an-hour flight, where it picked up new passengers. Among them were the four terrorists who eventually hijacked the plane. Why did they choose Uganda? This is almost self-evident. Uganda's then dictator, Idi Amin Dada, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Arabs, and he had also built deep friendships with the Palestinians.

 

“At the same time with Israel, hadn’t he?” I asked.

 

"That’s true," Ervin replied. "The Ugandan Air Force and even their Army were trained by Israel. Idi Amin liked to brag about having good relations with both of the opposing parties. Moreover, the Entebbe airport was built by a company from Israel. But this was irrelevant to the terrorists’ choosing it as a target. Rather, this fact helped us when we had to plan for the freeing of the hostages.

 

Background

 

"So Athens," I said. “What exactly happened in the Greek capital?”

 

“There were more than a hundred passengers boarding the plane, including the four hijackers. Three men and one woman. Two were Arabs; the other two were members of the German Baader-Meinhof group. Armed with handguns and grenades, shortly after takeoff, they entered the cockpit and forced the crew to land at the Libyan Benghazi airport, where they wanted to refuel to continue their flight to Uganda.  On June 28, 1976, at 3:00 o'clock in the morning, on the north shore of Lake Victoria, the passengers left the plane and were kept under guard in the old terminal building. Four more armed terrorists joined in Entebbe, supervised by Ugandan army units. The groups of passengers were immediately separated, under a humiliating selection: Jews and Israelis were separated from all the other hostages. From that point, the intentions of the terrorists became clear.”

 

“When did you learn about the hijacking?”

 

"Almost immediately," Ervin said. "And the planning of the raid started almost instantly. In Benghazi, a single traveler, a young, pregnant French woman, could leave the plane while the others had to stay aboard. Immediately we were put into alert, but we had to wait for the terrorists to make their move. At that point, at the beginning of the action, we have not yet suspected that Entebbe would be the ultimate goal.”

 

“And what happened after you had found out?”

“To understand how that works, you need to know that there is a unit in each army called Ground Command. Of course, the Israeli Army has such a unit. Officers serving here work out a so-called script for nearly every event that could occur. Of course, only at a high level, and in theory. Then, if an unexpected event occurs, they take the appropriate script and try to adapt it to the circumstances as soon as possible.”

“Who were the key figures of the Israeli military leadership at that time?”

 

“Yitzhak Rabin was the Prime Minister, and as such, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army; Shimon Peres the Minister of Defense, and General Mota Gur [2] the Chief of Staff of the Army. At the same time, the subsequent Chief of Staff, Ehud Barak, served in the Ground Command. So, roughly, these people carried the burden of planning and executing the action to free the hostages.”

“Has a diplomatic step been taken to attain the release of the hostages?”

 

“Yes. The French have been negotiating with the terrorists from the very first moment. It was thanks to their intervention, that the young woman who left the plane in Benghazi was released. The French, just like the aircraft owners, were responsible for the lives and safety of all passengers, but of course they were primarily concerned with the French citizens. Here I have to mention something. We are inclined to brand the French as anti-Jewish, anti-Israel. The pilot and the full crew of the aircraft have been offered to leave after they were separated from the passengers. However, the Commanding Officer categorically stated he would stay with his crew in Entebbe until the case was resolved in some way because he felt responsible for all passengers.”

 

The most daring plan is formed

 

"Nice gesture," I nodded, "but it is not enough. As far as terrorists are concerned, such humanitarian considerations do not affect them.”

 

"True," Ervin replied thoughtfully. That is why the Ground Command was not idling. From the moment that we learned that Flight 139 had landed in Entebbe, they were in action, almost not waiting for a higher order. As I said, the fact that the old terminal building was designed and constructed by an Israeli company, Solel Boneh [3], helped us. So the original blueprints were on hand. Based on these, it was easier to plan for a possible rescue operation. Why do I say possible? Because Mota Gur was quite indecisive about this and feared that a presumable failure would cost the lives of all Israeli and Jewish hostages. The distance was too long - approximately 3,500 kilometers - and there was too much risk. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Rabin and Minister of Defense Peres agreed that the action was feasible. Eventually they were right.”

 

“Was there any other diplomatic attempt to free the hostages?”

 

“Of course," Ervin replied. "Independently, but at the same time together with us, the French began to negotiate. Independently of us, since half of the passengers were French citizens. And together with us, because in exchange for the hostages, the terrorists demanded the release of 53 condemned terrorists kept in the custody of Israel, France, Germany, Switzerland and Kenya. The message containing these claims arrived late night on the 29th of June. The second message was much more specific: if we did not meet the demands by July 1, 14:00 in Israeli time, passengers would be re-boarded and blown up.”

 

“Has anything come out of these diplomatic attempts?”

 

"It's just that forty-seven passengers - of course not those from Israel - were able to leave Entebbe with another Air France aircraft. At this point the French Commander and all his crew became stubborn, saying that they would leave the airport only with all the passengers. The freed passengers, once they had arrived in Europe, were carefully questioned by the relevant authorities to find out what the circumstances in Entebbe were. From here, our Ground Command also learned that the Jewish and Israeli passengers were separated from the other passengers and that the Ugandans were actively involved in the hijacking.”

 

“What happened next?”

 

“As they say, we worked without any breaks. All of us. It was necessary to determine the strength needed for a raid, how to transport the soldiers, how to avoid injuring or killing the Jewish hostages, and finally how to get back to Israel. The raid had to be exact and surprising, in order to prevent the Ugandan soldiers from alerting other units. Only a night action could be considered. Under the cover of the night you can do a lot of things.”

 

“How did you select the airplanes?”

 

“It has its own criteria. The Hercules C130 [4] was the most capable one. After the Ground Command investigated the circumstances and largely determined the required size of the raid force, we came to the conclusion that four of these aircrafts and a Boeing 707 [5] passenger carrier would be launched. The latter was a safety reserve in the event of a fire fight between the assault forces and the terrorists, and therefore the Hercules should be equipped with a flying hospital. In that case, instead of the estimated eighty passengers, only twenty or thirty could have been transported by a Hercules. These machines also had the role of radio communication. It had to be taken into account that weapons, ammunition and even vehicles would be needed for the attack.”

“How big was the assault unit?”

 

“All in all, two hundred people. The Ground Command nominated Brigadier General Dan Shomron as the Operation and Overall Ground Commander. This staff included four crew of the six Hercules each, consisting of a commander, a co-pilot, an onboard engineer, a navigator and two so-called loadmasters [6]. Boeing's crew was not counted as staff. When we first got together, Dan Shomron wondered how to divide the crew and the fighting force to keep as much room as possible for the hostages to be released. Then I told him, "Dan, if you need a loadmaster, I'm one for myself." I have watched enough of this task when we used parachutes. I had the experience, and Dan was persuaded, so he could reduce his staff a little. Meanwhile, as we had the complete design documentation for the old terminal, we built up its scale replica and on it we practiced attack and rescue exercises.”

 

“Has the diplomatic activity progressed in the meantime?”

 

“Yes, and there were two important moments. On the one hand, another hundred and one non-Jewish and non-Israeli prisoners have been released by the terrorists; on the other hand, the government, in order to gain time, voted for negotiating with the hostage takers. Thirdly, the terrorists postponed the date of the ultimatum to  July 4. So we had more than the initially estimated time to prepare for the action. And this time was needed, too. For example, we had to get a black Mercedes car, the same type as the one used by Idi Amin to get around. Now, it was important to know that they drive on the left in Uganda, like in England, so the steering wheel had to be on the right. It was also possible to find a car of the same type, with the only problem that the car was not black but dark blue. We've quickly painted it black, and to show how tight we were in time despite the new deadline, we shoved the still wet car into the machine. The paint on it was drying during the flight.”

 

In the line of fire

 

“So July 1 had arrived. What happened next?”

 

“The training continued with great effort. Everyone knew exactly what he would be doing, each person’s task was fixed, where, and at what time he would attack. We also found a large soldier who was disguised as Idi Amin: he wore black face painted with shoe polish and donned a fanciful general uniform. We were confident that in the great turmoil, the Ugandans would not look at the person sitting in the car and we would manage to mislead them. We were laughing a lot as the fake Amin steadily cursed because of the shoe cream, complaining it was burning his skin. We got some Land Rovers [7], which were also meant to deceive the Ugandans. On the second night of July, the pilots practiced the takeoff and landing with the Hercules. Everything worked like clockwork.”

 

“When did you leave?”

 

“Saturday, July 3rd. Everyone was on board and then we took off in the afternoon at 13:20. The direction was the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, Ophir [8]. We had to wait for the final command to start the action. We fuelled up the machines, checked everything we could, and we did not even wait for the approval of the government. We got on board and we received the radio message in the air that the cabinet had approved the action. We did not have time to waste, and also, we were itching to go and get the terrorists.”

 

“What route did the convoy follow?”

 

"All the time we flew over the open sea. First on the Gulf of Eilat and then above the Red Sea. We had to be very precise about the route, as there were hostile countries on both sides: Saudi Arabia in the east, Egypt in the west, and Sudan in the south. Officially, we had a ceasefire with Egypt after the war in 1973, but we had to count on the fact that if we were too close to prowl, the Egyptian Air Force would attack our unit. We had to navigate very precisely and carefully. Then we passed Sudan, too, and there was a friendly country there: Ethiopia. We had to fly through this airspace to approach the Victoria Lake.”

 

“What other precautions did you take?”

 

“The Ground Command studied the schedule of the airport in Entebbe. We knew that sometime before midnight a British passenger plane would land in Entebbe. We had to schedule our arrival, so that the first Hercules would land immediately after the British plane before the Ugandans could turn off the taxiing lights. On this plane, there were soldiers who practiced how to provide guiding lights for other machines. In addition, we have taken some manual pumps with us, so that we could get the machines refueled from the underground tanks before returning home if needed. But we knew from the latter, that we would really only use them as a last resort because manual pumping was horribly slow, and we had to leave Entebbe after the raid as quickly as possible.”

 

“How quickly was the operation completed?”

 

"If I should describe it in one or two words, I would say, lightning fast. The plane did not land yet, but the rear cargo bay door was already open, and in the moment of touching ground, the Mercedes and two jeeps rushed towards the terminal even before Hercules had stopped. The paratroopers jumped out and secured the taxi lights. Two sentries commanded halt to the "presidential car", but they were immediately shot down by our men. The first attack unit jumped out of the vehicles and ran the last 40 meters to the terminal building. They entered the building and shouted in Hebrew: "Get down, we are from Israel!" Of course, all the hostages had dropped on the ground, only the terrorists stood, and they were taken out by the paratroopers. The second attack troop neutralized the "off-duty" terrorists. Lieutenant Colonel Yoni Netanyahu, Bibi's brother had suffered a lethal headshot during this action. It has not yet been made clear whether he was killed by a terrorist, or perhaps by a Ugandan sniper or by a stray bullet of his comrades. All in all, within three minutes of the first Hercules landing, the terminal was in our hands. After each plane had touched ground, armored troopers rolled over the tarmac to occupy the key points of the airport. The ground troopers secured all the routes and stormed the new terminal and the control tower. One squad blasted the six MIG-15 [9], stationed in Entebbe, roughly one quarter of the Ugandan Air Force, to prevent a possible airstrike. Another group immediately took over the pumps, but later when it was clear that the entire airport was in our hands, they used the standard pumps. The hostages were evacuated from the terminal building in about seven minutes and transported to the Hercules. Then the paratroopers drove the vehicles back and on the 4th of July at 0:40 the last Israeli plane took off from Entebbe. There was nothing left behind us, except for the old terminal full of holes, the smoldering wreckage of the blown combat aircrafts and the corpses of the eight terrorists.”

 

Aftershocks

 

"Did you fly just as cautiously on the way back as you did on the way there?"

 

"Yes, although it was so much easier for us as we could land in Nairobi to refuel. The Kenyans were very good; they received the planes as if they were regular commercial flights and provided them with everything. Soon we got up in the air again and flew over the Red Sea to Israel.”

 

“Did you manage to get all the hostages out of Entebbe?”

 

“Unfortunately not. Mrs. Dora Bloch was unlucky: she had a chicken bone stuck in her throat while she was eating, and because it was impossible to take care of her at the airport she was transported to a hospital in Kampala. When Idi Amin became aware of the action and heard that his pride, a quarter of his Air Force no longer existed, he commanded Mrs. Bloch to be murdered. So, we returned without her to Israel.”

 

“How was the response to the action?”

 

“You can imagine that. We did not even get out of Entebbe when the clever journalists had already figured out that there was an exchange of fire at the airport. Of course, all of them were gathered there, and on the spot, they told the world that the Alpha-Foxtrot 139 passengers were freed. By the time our first plane landed on Ludd, the news of the successful action spread in the country. It would be difficult to tell how big the crowds expecting us at the airport were. Our joy was only diminished by the loss of Mrs. Dora Bloch and the loss of Yoni Netanyahu. In honor of the latter, the action came into the public domain as Operation Jonathan. But we, veterans who've been involved in it, call it just the Entebbe action or, more simply, Flight 139. And we’ve got something to remember.”

 

“I guess I'm not mistaken if I suspect that the terrorists did not feel like messing with Israel after that, at least for a while.”

 

“You're not mistaken. This daring raid has primarily demonstrated that a determined nation can successfully overcome terrorism and defeat it. At the same time, the operation also undermined Idi Amin's dictatorship. In Uganda, sabotage and serious resistance developed, eventually leading to the fall of the dictator in 1979.”

* * *

 

By the end of our conversation, Ervin had quite warmed to his recalling the events. When the last words were spoken, a mild shadow swept over his face.

I did not ask for anything more because he told me everything that could be said about this action, but I knew without question that he was thinking of those who fought with him then and have since departed from us.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
 

In short, about us, that is, about our group: we started our relationship online, and then it developed into a personal version. We used to meet quite often; at least every two months at one of our homes. When the above interview was made, we were staying at Kiryat Ono in the apartment of Ervin and Eszter.

 

Gabe Dearborne (Gábor-Iván Kovács) made aliyah from Arad in the early nineties, and made a living as a technician; he was a talented and extremely knowledgeable person. He died young, aged 54, of cancer in 2009. The interviewee Ervin Kaidar died at the age of 75, in January 2011. He was followed by - among our other friends - his wife, Eszter, born in Debrecen; one of the most wonderful people I have ever known.

 

I have beautiful memories, and feel enriched by their friendship.

 

From the mood of the interview, you can feel the warmth and depth of our friendship. We have all become real Israelis, in constant and close contact, up to the last minute. I miss them. During the conversation between Gábor and Ervin, we followed the many moments of the Uganda action with awe, as Ervin had told us. The whole group was together, and we were very proud to learn, not just through an eyewitness, but also from our hero who was actively involved in the story, about the dramatic moments of an exceptional rescue action.

 

[1] - The letter codes used in airplane radio are marked with alternate words. In this case, it is Air France's Flight 139

[2] - Mota (Mordechai) Gur was employed between 1974 and 1978 in this post

[3] - Israeli Construction Company

[4] - Lockheed's high-powered four-engine cargo transport aircraft

[5] - Large-scale four-engine passenger airplane

[6] - It means roughly cargo-supervisor

[7] - British-made off-road vehicle

[8] - Today, Sharem-a-Sheikh is a resort in Egypt. At the time of the story, the Sinai Peninsula belonged to Israel

[9] - Soviet fighter

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