On July 27 1976, an Air France Airbus A300 flying out of Athens and carrying 248 passengers and 12 crew ended up not at its intended destination of Paris but at Entebbe airport in Uganda. The plane had been hijacked by pro-Palestinian terrorists and its captain Michel Bacos found himself facing a moral dilemma of life and death proportions.
What happened next — the dramatic rescue mission by Israeli commandos who had to take on not only the terrorists but also the Ugandan soldiers who were aiding them — captured the world’s imagination. Three movies have been made about the assault on the airport, one of which, Raid on Entebbe, was recently re-released on DVD.
Now aged 87 and long retired, Bacos recounts his story so vividly that you could be excused for thinking that it had happened just a few weeks ago. One thing particularly stands out in his mind. Indeed, it has come to define his life. It was the moment when the hijackers — two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two Germans from the German Revolutionary Cells — divided the hostages into two groups — Israeli nationals and Jews to one side, non-Jews to the other.
“I knew precisely what this meant,” says Baros. “I joined de Gaulle’s free French forces in June 1943. I was 51-years-old at the time of Entebbe and I had been through the war. So I knew precisely what fascism was all about. I knew perfectly well what separation meant and what it would lead to. I was a three-striped navy officer with a pilot’s education. I wasn’t going to run off and leave my passengers to their fate, even though I was told I could leave.”
But as a husband and father of three sons, he must have been tempted to walk out of the terminal building to safety. Not for a moment, he says.
“When I was being held hostage and had the possibility of being released I called the crew together and said: ‘We have to remain with the passengers until the end — that is our duty’. It was an immediate, unhesitating decision. Every member of my crew agreed with me. We would stay with the hostages no matter what and return with them to France. To me it was not just a question of the law — it was to do with basic values of decency and human behaviour. It was, simply put, the right thing to do.”
Bacos accompanies his recollections with a lot of laughing and easy banter. Perhaps he is so relaxed because he knows his life was never properly in danger. Suddenly the atmosphere changes.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he says. “I remember when one of the German terrorists said to me: ‘If any army from any country comes to try to save you, you can rest assured that we will hear them first and before they get to you, we will kill every last one of you’.”
That threat was firmly in his mind when the raid itself got under way, and he realised an attempt was being made to rescue the hostages.
“It was 11.30 pm. I heard machine gun fire. I happened to be next to the German who had told me that he was going to kill us all. When the fighting broke out I was very close to him. He could have shot us. But instead he said: ‘Stay down’. Twenty seconds later he was shot by Israeli commandos’.
“A Palestinian terrorist launched an incendiary device — one of my crew’s blankets started to burn but, not unreasonably, he didn’t want to stand up and risk being shot. There was shooting all around. But some of the passengers did stand up, unfortunately. One guy got up to be nearer to his wife. He was a camp survivor. He got shot. His wife was nervous and had asked him to be near her. He got up to go to her side. The moral of the story for me is ‘never listen to your wife’. OK, that was a joke — but I can assure you that it was really no laughing matter.”
Although there were fatalities among the hostages, the daring night-time rescue is considered to have been overwhelmingly successful. The mission is often referred to as Operation Jonathan in memory of the commando unit’s leader, Jonathan Netanyahu, the only Israeli soldier to have been killed in the raid and the older brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister.
Bacos received one of France’s highest accolades, the Légion d’Honneur, in addition to numerous awards from Israel and various Jewish organisations. Unsurprisingly, what happened at Entebbe has had a profound impact on his life.
“I felt as if I had been given a new lease of live, as if I had been born again. If anything bad happens at work or with the family — well, you really have got to put it into perspective. You have to be happy to be alive, and not to get stressed about things that really don’t matter. So in that sense it was a good thing for me and good for my family. Entebbe has been tremendously important in my life, especially for the amazingly powerful bonds it led me to have then, and still now, with the rest of the crew.”
Captain Bacos says that he is often asked if he knew that it was the Israelis who had come to rescue the hostages. The answer he gave on French TV has been played back many times since. “Who else would it have been?”
And how was he rewarded for his heroism by Air France — presumably with a generous package of perks and benefits. “Not exactly,” he replies. “They gave me a fortnight off. After which I asked if I could pilot the first Air France plane back to Tel Aviv. You must never give in to terrorism, you know. Once you do, it’s the beginning of the end.”