If you turn on the news today or search through any online news site, it is very likely you’ll come across a story concerning a hostage-taking somewhere in the world. While such events seem to be becoming more and more common, taking hostages and prisoners is hardly a new phenomenon. The act itself is often perpetrated by individuals looking for a bargaining chip or leverage. For what, you ask? Hostages are taken for a variety of reasons, often linked with political, religious or military motives. The resulting stand-offs and crises involving hostage-takers and their captives can last hours or even years. In many cases, demands or ransoms are met and the hostages are released. In other incidents, spectacular and movie-like operations are launched which see special-forces move in to forcibly free the hostages.
Related to hostage-taking, in times of war soldiers and officials are taken prisoner and held in camps or prisons. In some instances, a particular prison may have had a reputation for torturing or killing captives, thus pressuring leaders to launch some sort of rescue operation. Over the past several decades there have been numerous rescue attempts of this nature. Some have been cancelled, others have failed but a few have been very successful, enabling wartime prisoners a chance to escape in a way you only thought Hollywood could imagine.
The following list looks at 10 of the most daring rescue operations ever undertaken. Most involve actions to free hostages but there are a couple involving spectacular missions to free prisoners during wartime. For the most part, these operations were very successful with most of the prisoners or hostages rescued. That said, there are a few examples where, although the majority of hostages were freed, many were killed and wounded as a result of heavy-handed tactics on the part of the rescuers or desperation on the part of the hostage-takers. Some of these events have been covered in movies while others are less well-known, yet just as unbelievable.
10 Operation Barras, September 2000
Starting off this list is one of the ‘smaller’ hostage rescue operations. In August 2000, an 11-man patrol of the Royal Irish Regiment was ambushed by local rebel fighters while undertaking humanitarian operations in civil war-torn Sierra Leone. The rebels, known as the ‘West Side Boys’ released 6 of the soldiers but held onto the rest which included a Sierra Leone soldier who was acting as a guide. If the West Side Boys had been smart, they would have released all of the hostages – but they weren’t. Fearing the soldiers may be moved to a new location, around 150 soldiers from the SAS and Parachute Regiment launched a daring assault on the rebel compound on the 10th of September 2000. In 20 minutes, the assault was all over with the hostages rescued, 25 rebels killed and 18 captured for the loss of one British soldier.
9 Operation Jericho, February 1944
During the Nazi occupation of France, French resistance fighters lived in constant fear of being captured. If the Nazis got their hands on you it was likely you, your relatives and your friends could face extensive interrogation, torture and even execution. Certain prisons became notorious for holding and torturing French prisoners. In February 1944, the British decided to launch a daring airstrike on Amiens Prison in an effort to free the several hundred resistance fighters and political prisoners held inside. The attack was carried out by nine Mosquito bombers who aimed to breach the prison walls, kill the guards and open an entrance for the prisoners to escape. That's what they did - all of this in an era where smart-bombs did not exist. While 100 prisoners were killed, over 250 escaped with 70 of those evading re-capture. The value of the raid is still debated given most of the prisoners were recaptured and hundreds more were executed by the Nazis in retaliation.
8 Operation Nimrod, May 1980
In late April 1980, 6 armed men entered the Iranian embassy in London and took 26 people hostage. The hostage-takers belonged to an Iranian separatist group and demanded the release of political prisoners and safe passage out of the Britain. Six days into the standoff, the hostage-takers sealed their fate when they executed one of the hostages and threw the body out onto the street. Having seen enough, the British Government transferred all authority over to the SAS. On the 5th of May, SAS men rappelled down from the embassy’s roof and entered through the windows of adjoining balconies. Over the next 17 minutes, the SAS forces rescued all but one of the hostages and killed all but one of the terrorists.
7 Operation Isotope, May 1972
During the 1970s, it seemed like Palestinian or pro-Palestinian groups were hijacking airliners on a regular basis in order to free imprisoned colleagues or get their message heard. On May 8th 1972, Sabena Flight 571 was hijacked by four members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group who gained widespread notoriety a few months later at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The plane, which contained 90 passengers, landed in Israel where the hostage-takers made the usual demand for the release of imprisoned Palestinians. Little did they know that 16 Sayeret Matkal commandos, disguised as aircraft maintenance crew, were about to ruin their day. The Israeli commandos, which included future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, convinced the Palestinians that the plane needed repairs. The Israelis quickly stormed the plane and in 10 minutes they had killed two and captured the remaining two hijackers. Only one passenger was killed, passing away later from wounds received during the assault.
6 Raid at Cabanatuan, January 1945
During the Second World War, Japan developed a reputation for brutally treating prisoners who had been taken in battle. Thousands of prisoners perished at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army because of poor or inhumane treatment. Following the fall of the Philippines in 1942, tens of thousands of American and Filipino troops were sent to prison camps with thousands dying along the way. When the Americans returned to the Philippines in 1944, the Japanese Army began killing POWs before they could be rescued. The US feared this would happen more and more as they advanced and therefore developed a plan to rescue prisoners from one of the largest camps at Cabanatuan. On January 30th 1945, nearly 400 American Rangers, Scouts and Filipino guerillas, having travelled behind enemy lines, started a 30 minute attack on the camp. While solid figures were never recorded, the attackers killed several hundred Japanese guards and soldiers in the area while rescuing over 500 POWs and civilians. This event forms the basis of the 2005 film The Great Raid.
5 Operation Feuerzauber, October 1977
On the 13th of October 1977, Lufthansa flight 181 was hijacked by four Palestinian and Lebanese hijackers. The Frankfurt-bound plane was diverted and after making a number of refueling and landing attempts at other airports, Flight 181 ended up in Mogadishu, Somalia. The hijackers had threatened to blow up the plane if political prisoners in Germany and Turkey were not released. One of the flight crew was executed and thrown out of the plane to demonstrate the seriousness of the matter. To buy time, the West German government said it would agree to the demands but needed time to get the prisoners to Mogadishu. Rather than send the prisoners, the West German Government sent its counter-terrorist unit, GSG 9. Having quietly approached the aircraft, the German forces opened the doors and shouted for everyone to get down before opening fire. In just five minutes three of the hijackers were dead and one captured while all of the hostages were rescued.
4 Air France Flight 8969, December 1994
On the 24th of December 1994, Air France Flight 8969 was hijacked by four members of the Armed Islamic Group who, having killed three hostages, planned on blowing up the airliner over Paris. Short on fuel, the plane was forced to land at Marseille before it could continue on to Paris. The French had no intention of allowing the plane to ever leave the ground again and sent in their counter-terrorist forces known as the GIGN. After several hours of reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, the GIGN were forced into action after the hijackers started firing at the control tower. Using airstairs, 30 GIGN men assaulted the plane, entering from the rear and front doorways. A few minutes after the assault had started, three of the hijackers were dead and most of the passengers were free. The final hijacker, wounded, barricaded himself in the cockpit until he died of his wounds. While three hostages had been killed beforehand, no passengers or GIGN were killed in the assault.
3 Moscow Theatre Siege, October 2002
On the 23rd of October 2002, the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow was taken over by at least 40 armed Chechen militants who supported the separatist movement in Chechnya. In the theatre at that time were 850 people. The layout of the theatre presented any would-be rescue attempt with serious challenges. To get to the hostages, rescuers would have to get through a single long corridor and up a staircase – no doubt, defended by the terrorists. The added problem was that the hostage takers had a lot of explosives both strapped to themselves and planted in the theatre with the purpose of destroying everything should anyone try a rescue. Two days into the stand-off, two of the hostages were executed prompting a response from the Russians. Special-forces from the Russian Alpha and Vega Groups pumped in a still-undisclosed chemical which knocked out everyone inside. All 40 of the Chechens were killed, along with approximately 130 hostages who never recovered from the gas. In classic Russian style, the heavy-handed tactics resulted in a significant number of deaths, yet, over 700 hostages were saved from an almost impossible situation.
2 Operation Chavin de Huantar, April 1997
This is likely one most people aren’t familiar with. In December 1996, 14 rebels of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement seized the Japanese Ambassador’s residence in Peru. The rebels slipped past hundreds of armed guards and security to seize the complex along with hundreds of people there to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday. By mid-April 1997, all but 72 of the hostages had been released. Having had enough, officials opted to assault the compound. Miniature microphones and cameras were smuggled in as part of aid packages and placed around the building so as to provide a better picture of what was going on inside. Supplies included light-colored clothing for the hostages in order to make them stand out against the dark uniforms of the rebels. Meanwhile, Peruvian forces had dug tunnels in preparation to assault from underneath the building. On the 22nd of April, 140 Peruvian commandos launched a well-choreographed assault with men coming out of tunnels inside the residence while others stormed the front entrance or climbed the walls at the rear. In the end, all of the rebels, one hostage and two soldiers were killed.
1 Operation Thunderbolt, July 1976
Taking top spot on this list is one of the most audacious and spectacular hostage rescues to ever be pulled off. In late June 1976, Air France Flight 139 with nearly 250 passengers was hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Over a couple days, the non-Israeli passengers were released as the hijackers only wished to keep hold of any Israelis and air crew. The 106 remaining hostages soon found themselves at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, a country whose leader Idi Amin was sympathetic to the hijackers. Believing the hostages were doomed and that no negotiation would ever work, the Israelis opted to try an ambitious rescue mission. One hundred Israeli commandos were flown 2500 miles and landed at Entebbe. Disguised as Amin’s motorcade they approached the terminal building where the hostages were being held by several hijackers. A fierce firefight erupted as the commandos swarmed the building. Over the next hour and a half, 102 hostages were rescued while the 7 hijackers and over 40 Uganda military personnel were killed. The Israeli forces lost a single commando, Yonatan Netanyahu, the older brother of Benjamin Netanyahu.