On 8 May 1972 Sabena Flight 571 from Vienna, Austria to Tel Aviv, Israel captained by Reginald Levy was hijacked by four armed terrorists from the Black September Organisation, a breakaway faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation that would come to greater infamy later that year with the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics.
After the Boeing 707 landed at Lod Airport, the terrorists demanded the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the plane’s passengers, one of whom was Levy’s wife, Dora.
In this except from From Night Flak to Hijack: It’s a Small World by Reginald Levy (available now from The History Press), Levy recalls the moment that 12 members of Israel’s crack Sayeret Matkal commando unit stormed the plane and rescued the hostages:
Late in the afternoon a train of small carriages, bearing aircraft wheels, escorted by a team of white overalled men could be seen approaching the aircraft. They stopped before actually reaching the aeroplane and the highly nervous and agitated terrorists told the Flight Engineer to get down and supervise the repairs.
He was joined by the Chief Flight Engineer who had mysteriously reappeared. Whilst everyone was occupied I managed to slip down into the Lower 41 and was just in time to follow one of the ‘mechanics’ up a ladder and on to the port wing near one of the wing emergency exits.
The mechanics, of course, were a squad of crack Israeli commandos, the same squad, in fact that much later carried out the epic rescue of the Air France hostages at Entebbe Airport. They were led this time by a very young major named Ehud Barak who was later to become the General Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Force and later, Prime Minister. One of the soldiers was another future Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
I went into the plane through the overwing door and found myself in the middle of a battle. Two Israeli soldiers were in a sitting position, back to back, so that they covered the rear and front of the plane and they were shuffling up the aisle with their Uzis at the ready.
There were shots being fired but I couldn’t tell from where they were being fired or at whom. There were no loud reports but a sort of ‘pop’. I was trying to find Dora but, of course, everyone was down on the floor. Everyone that is, except one unfortunate young Danish girl who stood up to see what was going on and got a bullet in her head and later died. I kept calling ‘Dora, Dora,’ and eventually I saw a small hand waving over the seat where I knew Dora was sitting and found her there protecting the little six-year-old girl. I picked up the child and took her out of the plane and handed her to one of the soldiers then returned to Dora again.
The fighting was all over. The two men were shot by the Israelis and one of the girls was wounded. The other girl had been grabbed by one of the passengers and was unharmed. Dora had seen the tall figure of the leader of the Israeli commandos and had heard him saying in a very calm voice, ‘Get down. Everything will be alright.’
According to other witnesses, the leader of the terrorists had come out of the cockpit, firing his revolver and the leader of the Israeli squad had calmly shot him between the eyes. All this had taken place before I got up to the front of the aircraft again. I saw my cap lying on the floor and picked it up. I quickly dropped it when I saw the state it was in.
The terrorist had been wearing it when he had been shot in the head.
From Night Flak to Hijack: It’s a Small World by Reginald Levy is available to order now from The History Press. For more stories of daring commando raids, pick up the new issue of History of War or subscribe now and save 30% off the cover price.