November 28, 2021

The Guns of Operation Thunderbolt: Right or Wrong?


On July 4, 1976 across the United States bicentennial celebrations were underway – but earlier in the day half way around the world one of the most daring hostage rescue operations had successfully taken place at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda. It has become the subject of four films; three of which were made within a year of the actual event while the fourth was released in 2018.

7 Days At Entebbe movie still
Four movies have been made about Operation Thunderbolt, when Israel responded to Palestinian terrorists hijacking a passenger jet. What did these movies get right and wrong about the guns of the real-life incident? Image: Participant

The Backstory

A week earlier, on June 27, an Air France Airbus A300 jet liner had been hijacked by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP-EO) and two members of the German Revolutionary Cells (Red Army Faction).

The objective of the hijacking was to free 40 Palestinian and affiliated militants imprisoned in Israel and 13 other prisoners held in four other nations. The flight originated in Tel Aviv, where security had been reasonably strong due to ongoing fears of hijackings, but had a stopover in Athens before it began to head to its final destination of Paris. At the time Athens was a far less secure airport and the four terrorists were able to board the aircraft with a surprising number of small arms.

During the flight the terrorists took control of the aircraft, which was diverted first to Benghazi, Libya, where it was held for seven hours, during which the Airbus A300 was refueled. While on the ground, a British-born Israeli citizen, Patricia Martell, pretended to be having a miscarriage and was released – and she provided crucial details about the hijackers.

After being refueled, the plane then departed for Entebbe Airport, where they were joined by at least three other terrorists. Upon arrival in the African nation, the hijackers gained the support of Ugandan President Idi Amin, who ordered his military to guard the plane and an old terminal where the hostages were held.

The hijackers made the decision to free the non-Israeli passengers – however, the aircraft’s crew of 12 and ten French passengers all opted to remain with the Israeli hostages.

Given that Israel maintained a policy of not negotiating with terrorists, a rescue plan was put in motion. It was called Operation Entebbe or Operation Thunderbolt, and involved some 100 commandos from the Israeli Defense Force, who landed at the Entebbe airport in a cargo plane and conducted a daring raid. All seven hijackers and some 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed. Five Israeli commandos were wounded, but the only death among the Israeli commandos was the unit’s leader Yonatan Netanyahu – the older brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As noted, four films have been made about the raid. How does the “firearms accuracy” and overall production stack up?

Victory at Entebbe (1976)

This American made-for-television movie aired on ABC just six months after the actual raid. It was shot on videotape at Burbank Studios, which gave it the look of a daytime soap opera, but it actually featured an impressive cast that included Kirk Douglas, Helen Hayes, Elizabeth Taylor, Anthony Hopkins and Burt Lancaster. Richard Dreyfuss – in a pre-Close Encounters of the Third Kind role – played Col. Netanyahu, but he was completely miscast and it is obvious why he never took on another “military role” in his acting career.

Victory at Entebbe movie poster
This made-for-television depiction of the incident featured a star-studded cast. Image: ABC

Firearms Accuracy: Filmed completely in California and having the production values of an off-Broadway play, this made-for-TV movie featured only whatever small arms were apparently available at the studio. The hijackers and Israeli commandos alike are armed with MAC-10 and Madsen M50 submachine guns. So in terms of accuracy it is clear that being first didn’t make this production the best or more accurate in any way.

Victory at Entebbe movie still
Although this TV movie had a solid cast, it had a mix of weapons that were not an accurate representation of reality. Image: ABC

How to Watch: Victory at Entebbe isn’t available on any streaming service and apart from some import DVDs is almost impossible to find. Only a few clips as well as the trailer are currently available on YouTube. However, given the production values and the fact that most of the cast was wasted – Taylor appears in just one brief scene – this one was hardly a victorious attempt at bringing the story to life!

Raid on Entebbe (1977)

This was another made-for-TV production, released on NBC a month after ABC’s effort. This marked the first time two American broadcast networks rushed to release similar stories – and it didn’t happen again until ABC, NBC and CBS all released movies about Amy Fisher (with ABC’s and CBS’s even airing the same evening).

The cast of NBC’s effort isn’t quite as notable, but still included Peter Finch, James Woods and Charles Bronson. While it was still filmed entirely in the United States, the production did use Stockton Metropolitan Airport and it stood in for both the Israeli Air Force (IAF) base and Entebbe Airport, while additional scenes were shot at Van Nuys Military Airport.

Raid on Entebbe movie poster
Charles Bronson headlined this made-for-television movie of the events in 1976. Image: NBC

The production also used a real C-130E, the same type used by the IAF, while the U.S. Air Force’s 146th Airlift Wing supplied military equipment including M151 jeeps and other equipment.

Firearms Accuracy: The Israeli commandos are seen armed with IMI Uzis, but some of the weapons used in background scenes are MAC-10s mocked up to look like Uzis. Additionally, MGC M-16 Model Gun Corp. non-firing replica rifles stand in for military M16A1s used by the Israelis in a few scenes.

The terrorists are incorrectly armed mostly with Madsen M50 submachine guns while a couple can be seen with Heckler & Koch rifles – which would have been unlikely. It is notable however that the German terrorist cell, the Red Army Faction was known to use the HK93 including in the killing of the West German Attorney General Siegfried Buback and two policemen in 1977, but none were reportedly in Entebbe. The Ugandan military is also seen using the incorrect German-made HK93, as the nation was under an embargo by the time the HK93 was introduced. However, the Ugandan military did use (and still uses) the similarly looking HK G3 rifle.

Raid on Entebbe movie still
While it may have been more accurate than the ABC effort, this movie had its own firearms accuracy issues. Image: NBC

How to Watch: Raid on Entebbe is currently available on Amazon Video and is free to watch for Prime subscribers. It is only available on Region 2 DVDs. This one is a success, and even 43 years later still holds up thanks to a quick moving story and decent production values.

Operation Thunderbolt (1977)

This 1977 Israeli film lacks the big names of the American TV movies – despite efforts to land Steve McQueen in a leading role – but it actually makes for a more compelling movie as “American” stars don’t get in the way of the story. In fact it is notable that Yitzchak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yigal Allon all appeared in the film as themselves!

Operational Thunderbolt movie poster
Made with the full support of the Israeli government, this movie lacked big stars but was very accurate in its firearms selections. Image: Golan-Globus Productions

The production, which had the full support of the IAF and Israeli government – went to great lengths to create an accurate depiction of the events – at least as told from the Israeli perspective. And this included a recreated Entebbe Airport, while three of the four Hercules C-130 aircraft used in the actual raid appear in the film. It is the most action packed of the film and includes extensive training sequences as well as likely dramatized version of the attack on the airport. This production was filmed twice: first with the characters speaking in Hebrew, French, German, Arabic and English per the role of the character; and then again as an all-English version for international release.

The film’s director, Menahem Golan went on to direct the Chuck Norris film The Delta Force, which featured the rescue of an airliner hijacked by Lebanese terrorists.

Firearms Accuracy: As might be expected, actual Israel Defence Forces’ firearms can be seen in the film including the IMI Uzi and M16s, but also IMI Romat and FN MAG 58 machine guns. Some of the Ugandan soldiers can be seen with Sten Guns, which isn’t a debatable choice. Uganda had been part of the British Commonwealth and was supplied with British military small arms, so it is possible there were some World War II era Sten Guns in service, but it is more likely that the military would have been using Cold War-era Sterling submachine guns.

First AK-47 ever shown on film
Operation Thunderbolt was the first Western film to show the AK-47 rifle. Image: Golan-Globus Productions

The terrorists including the German Wilfried Böse (played by Klaus Kinski) are armed with accurate firearms as well including the Czech Sa. 25 submachine gun and AK-47s. This was actually the first Western made (non-Soviet) film to feature the AK-47 on screen. The firearms were likely real AK-47s captured from the Egyptian and/or Syrian militaries during the Six Day War in 1967 or the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

How to Watch: Operation Thunderbolt was released by Israeli video company SISU Home Entertainment in 2003 on a two-set DVD – reported to be region free. Region 2 DVDs can be found on eBay, but the film is otherwise not available in the United States and isn’t currently on any streaming service.

7 Days in Entebbe (2018)

The most recent version of the 1976 event was released in 2018 and stars Rosamund Pike and Daniel Brühl – and unlike previous movies shows the story largely from both sides. The overall historical accuracy of the film has also been questioned, including the death of Netanyahu, while the film downplayed the action – and cross-cut with a modern dance performance – which makes the impact of the raid seem less impactful.

7 Days At Entebbe movie poster
Although the movie had higher production values than the TV movies, it still did not get all of the firearms correct. Image: Participant

Firearms Accuracy: This time the terrorists are armed with Czech CZ Vz. 61 E Skorpion submachine guns – despite reports that Sa. 25 were the actual weapons of choice. However, the AK-47 is far more prominent in the film – including “training” sequences involving the hijackers.

Most of the Israeli commandos are armed with AK-47s as well, which also contradicts the past versions of the story and most accounts, which claimed that Uzis and M-16s were used. However, FN MAG 58 machine guns, instead of American M2 .50s (seen in the American TV-versions) are present on the Israeli jeeps.

7 Days At Entebbe movie still
Here an actor is armed with a CZ Vz. 61 when the terrorists were reportedly armed with Sa Vz. 25 submachine guns. Image: Participant

How to Watch: This one is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray, and is available as a rental or purchase from Amazon Video. However it is not available on Netflix at the present time, but has been regularly available on some pay-TV channels.

Final Thoughts

While four films have been made about Operation Thunderbolt, clearly two of the productions stand out including the NBC-made TV movie and the Israeli feature film, yet none probably tell the complete story or else there wouldn’t be multiple presentations. Unfortunately the best of the bunch is likely the hardest to actually see!

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