Yoni’s Last Days – The Raid at Entebbe - Page 2
(Excerpted from the “Afterword” of The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu by Ma'ariv Publication)
Day Of Preparations
As more information came in, however, Yoni changed certain points in the plan. He gave briefings to the soldiers and officers, supervised some of the rehearsals, took care of numerous matters that cropped up, held a meeting in his office with the commander of the C-130 transport squadron, and went over to the Kirya, the military headquarters of the IDF, several times for meetings and briefings.
His most important meeting at the Kirya was, without a doubt, the one he had with Defense Minister Shimon Peres.
“I asked somebody what the meeting was about,” says Rachel, the secretary to Motta Gur, the chief of staff. When she saw Yoni waiting to go into Peres’s office, she “was told that Shimon had asked Yoni to come so that he could look him in the eyes and ask him straight, ‘Yoni, can it be done?’ That was the whole purpose of the meeting. Yoni stood there [outside Peres’s door] with maps in his hands, very preoccupied….He was pressed for time and said that he was in a terrible hurry and they should let him in already.”
"He presented the plan to me in detail," recalls Peres, “and I liked it very much. The two of us sat alone…My impression was one of exactness and imagination…and complete self-confidence…which without a doubt influenced me. We had a problem with lack of intelligence. But Yoni said: ‘Do you know of any oepration that wasn’t carried out half blind? Every operation is half blind.’ But Yoni was well aware of the problem, and he told me that the operation was absolutely doable. And as to the cost, he said we had every chance of coming out of it with almost no losses.”
That night, with Chief of Staff Motta Gur looking on, the various forces, including that of the Unit, conducted a full model exercise. “We practiced according to the plan,” says Muki. “We placed two soldiers who acted as ‘guards’ on the runway. They ordered us to stop. We did, and Yoni ‘shot’ at them with a silencers. We then continued toward the terminal.” Several years later Muki also explained: “During the preparations for the raid Yoni foresaw a situation whereby we encountered two Ugandan guards…and our response in such a case was to take out the two guards with silencers.”
This encounter with the guards was followed by a dash to the old terminal building and a rapid run from the vehicles to the entrances. Speed was now considered critical. The purpose was to reach the entrances before the terrorists realized what was going on and started to kill off the hostages with automatic-weapons fire and grenades.
Following the exercise, the Chief of Staff met with the various commanders and wanted to know their opinion about the chances of succes. He spent the longest amount of time with Yoni.
“Yoni said to Motta that he had every reason to believe that if the hostages were in fact still there, the Unit, with the methods and men at its disposal, could pull it off,” recalls Muki. “It was fairly natural for Yoni to think so, but he [also] had good reason [for saying that]. The bottom line of what he said was: ‘It can be done.’ I saw Motta’s reaction, and I’m convinced that Yoni’s words gave Motta…the required confidence to push on and get the go-ahead from the cabinet.”
Following his discussion with Yoni, Dan Shomron, and other officers, Motta Gur said that he had reached a decision in favor of the operation and was going to recommend it to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Peres.
A few hours later Yoni went home for a brief nap. Early the following morning, Saturday July 3, he said goodbye to his girlfriend Bruria and rushed back to the Unit. He held one last inspection of the men, then conducted an hour-long tactics session with the officers.
“It was a productive hour,” says Giora, one of the leading officers. “There was a lot of discussion about how things would be done under that kind of pressure. Different questions came up….[We considered] what would happen if a team was knocked out, who would replace it, and so on. We raised these questions, and Yoni answered them on the spot: ‘We’ll do it this way or that.’ It was an excellent meeting.”
Yoni then left his men and went with some of his officers to Lod airport for the final general briefing, headed by Deputy Chief of Staff Yekutiel Adam, who during the last two days had been pushing indefatigably for the execution of the raid.
There, in the squadron briefing room at Lod, Yoni met again with Joshua Shani, the lead pilot and comander of the Hercules transport squadron. He spent some time with him going over the joint plan of action. Yoni also took aside Amnon Halivni, the pilot of the hostage evacuation plane, who had spent some time in Uganda and was acquainted with the old terminal and the Ugandan army. “Yoni wanted to know details about the building, from the shed for firefighting equipment on the right end to the control tower on the left,” Halivni says. “He wanted to know where the stairs were, what kind of windows there were, what the approach to the entrances was like and more….He asked me one more thing: ‘How do you think the Ugandan sentries will react to the Mercedes and jeeps?’ I told him: ‘They’ll yell ‘Stop!’ or something like that, and they’ll point their bayoneted rifles at you. And if you don’t stop, they’ll shoot.”
By the time the general briefing with Adam was over, Yoni’s men had arrived at the airport with their vehicles. At noon four planes took off for Sharm-el-Shekh, at the southern tip of the Sinai desert. There they would await word as to whether the government had given them the go-ahead to continue on to Entebbe.
The flight to Sharm-el-Sheikh was rocky, causing much discomfort among the men. After landing at Sharm, the men got off, refreshed themselves a bit, and then gathered to hear Yoni’s final briefing.
“It was a speech I’ll never forget,” says Alex, one of the assault soldiers. “He gave us confidence that we could do it. His leadership and his ability to affect us were simply above and beyond anything.”
The government was still in session and had not yet decided whether to approve the operation. But if the raid was to be executed at all, the planes would now have to take off for their destination, since Entebbe was eight hours away, and the plan called for landing at what was considered the optimal hour: midnight Ugandan time. Thus, with the understanding that if the government did not approve the operation the planes would turn around midway and head back to Israel, the force was instructed to take off.
“Yoni told the men to get on board the plane, and they were surprised to hear they were actually going,” says Shlomo. “Not that he was raring to fight but he didn’t look at all worried by the go-ahead either. You could see that he felt very comfortable, that he was finally starting to breathe easily.”
Take-Off From The Sinai Desert
The lead plane was crowded. It carried Yoni’s assault party with its three vehicles and a paratrooper force, intended for taking control of the civilian new terminal. They were flying over the Red Sea, just a few yards above water to avoid radar detection by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Yoni and Muki sat down with Amos, a soldier of the Unit who had been transferred at the last moment from the peripheral APC force to the assault force. Amos had replaced a soldier who had become ill on the flight to Sharm and could not participate in the raid. Yoni sketched for him (on the back of an air sickness bag) the plan othe terminal and the assault routes, indicating to him the various entrances and the task of each squad, including that of Amos.
“While Yoni was explaining all this to me,” says Amos, “we were informed that the government had given us the green light to carry on to Entebbe, that we were going to do it…Yet he stayed completely calm…and went on explaining to me my job as though we were going to perform an exercise.”
On the way some of the men slept while sitting on their seats in the vehicles. Some were sprawled over the car hoods or lying on the floor beneath the jeeps. For a while Yoni sat next to Muki in the Mercedes, reading a book. Yoni too was exhausted after a week during which he had hardly slept a wink. At a certain stage he went to the cockpit, where some of the officers were gathered, and lay down on the bunk bed. A little while later the lead pilot wanted to grab a nap as well.
“I looked back and saw Yoni sleeping in that bed,” says Shani. “Under normal conditions, if some battalion commander is resting there, I tell him politely but firmly to go rest in the rear of the plane. This time I couldn’t bring myself to do it, because my theory was that the chances of the first group that would storm that building to stay alive were fifty-fifty. I said to myself: ‘He’s taking a huge personal risk in this, that’s for sure. He’s grabbing some sleep here. So am I going to wake him up?’ On the other hand, I also wanted to lie down. He was curled up on the edge. I lay down next to him, getting closer little by little till I was a few millimeters away from him. I myself was afraid of a failure on a national level…that we simply wouldn’t succeed, that we’d cause a disaster. I looked at Yoni from about an inch away, nose to nose, and he was sleeping like a baby, utterly at peace. I asked Tzvika, the navigator, when Yoni had gone to sleep, and he said, ‘He went to sleep [a while ago] and asked me to wake him up a little while before the landing.’ And the thought flitted through my mind: Where does this calmness of his come from? Soon you’re going into battle, and here you are, sleeping as if nothing is happening! I myself couldn’t fall asleep. I got up ad went back to my seat.”
By this time the planes were already flying high over the skies of Africa, first over Ethiopia, then over Kenya. Night had fallen and the planes were now cruising in the dark with their lights turned off. Finally they reached Lake Victoria, on whose shores lay Entebbe airport. A tremendous lightning storm caught them as they entered the lake.
Yoni got up. He went back to the hold, where his men were about to get ready, and woke up some of those who were still asleep. The men put on their ammo vests. Each took his place in his vehicle.
Yoni then proceeded to move among his men.
“There was this reddish light, and I remember that we saw his face,” relates Shlomo, one of the soldiers. “He wasn’t wearing his beret, or his ammo vest or gun…He spoke to the men, smiled at us, said a few words of encouragement to each one. It was as though he were leaving us, as though he knew what was going to happen to him. He didn’t issue any orders but just tried to instill confidence. I remember that he shook hands with the youngest guy on the force…He acted more like a friend…I sensed that he felt that from here on everything, or at least nearly everything, depended on us. He’d seen a lot of combat, and quite a few of the soldiers there had seen none at all, or a lot less than he had. And I remember him going by, joking a little, exchanging a few words, easing the men’s tension before battle.”
They had already reached a small island on the lake, just south of Entebbe. The other three planes of the convoy now stayed behind, flying in circles, while the lead plane headed north. The storm was behind them. All of a sudden the airport could be seen at a distance, with its runway lights fully lit. Yoni proceeded to get into the passenger seat of the Mercedes. The back ramp was being lowered as the plane was descending toward the runway, and Yoni told Amitsur, the driver, to start the car’s engine.