When it comes to anything, you have to be prepared for everything—both the obvious and the unexpected. It is 2:05 a.m. local time in Somalia on October 18, 1977 when a good three dozen men under the fuselage of the hijacked Lufthansa Boeing “Landshut” discover that their radios have failed. In the next few minutes they want to storm the 737, free the 86 hostages on board and take out the four terrorists. And now this: no more communication.
Only later does it become clear that condensation can form in the devices when there are strong fluctuations in temperature and humidity - and that is exactly what happened when the walkie-talkies were taken out of the hold of a Boeing 707 in the muggy air of Mogadishu airport a few hours earlier have been. During the test before the hour-long, extremely cautious advance to the remotely parked "Landshut", the "sparks" still worked without any problems. But that doesn't help.
However, Lieutenant Colonel Ulrich K. Wegener did not hesitate for a second. He signals to his men that they are switching from radio to “guide by signal”: From now on, orders come by signals with hands and heads. Eight snipers have the “Landshut” in their sights – ready to shoot hijackers from a distance if necessary. But that turns out to be unnecessary. At 2:09 a.m., six storm troopers, each consisting of five men - always three on the ladders leaning against the machine and two below to hold on to - signaled to Wegener: "Ready!". One of the specialists recalls the moment: "In the last few moments before the intrusion, all you think is: get in, hold position, fight opponents, what I've learned, return fire and that's it."
The journalist Martin Herzog describes these and numerous other details that were previously unknown in his book of the same name, which was published to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the GSG9 (Ch. Links Verlag, 478 pages, 25 euros). It is the most detailed and best depiction of the special unit to date. And unlike earlier publications, it is not only based on (usually few) eyewitness reports, newspaper articles and memoirs, but also includes the files available in the Federal Archives.
According to his nine-page report, Wegener gives the order to attack at 2:10 a.m.: "Fire magic - Go!" In the next 60 seconds, a myth is born - the myth of the German special unit GSG9. Because the action succeeds almost perfectly, which means: An anti-terror specialist is injured by a random hit in the neck (but can already drink champagne on the success on the return flight), a flight attendant suffers from a hand grenade that a terrorist who has already been fatally hit throws it can, wounds on the legs.
With this, the GSG9 even surpasses its Israeli model: the special unit Sayeret Matkal was able to save 96 hostages when they stormed a hijacked plane in Tel Aviv in 1972, but lost a passenger; in a similar operation in Entebbe in 1976, 102 kidnappers could be freed, but three hostages and their own commander died.
Since the success of Mogadishu, it has been clear that the Federal Republic will not give in to terrorist blackmail, but has the ability to respond with professional violence if necessary. A few German planes have been hijacked. But every terrorist runs the risk of messing with the men from the GSG9 headquarters, which is still stationed in Hangelar near Bonn.
The starting point for this development was a double failure. Only on the 5th/6th September 1972, when Munich's police failed bloodily in an attempt to free the Israeli Olympic participants who had been taken hostage by Palestinians. And then, when the federal government allowed itself to be blackmailed on October 29, 1972, into releasing the three surviving assassins who attacked the hijacked Lufthansa LH-615 aircraft.
At that time, the GSG9 was just being founded. Just a day after embarrassingly giving in to the LH-615 hijackers, Wegener, the new unit's first chief, traveled to a special training course run by the Israel Defense Forces. The topic was: "Fighting Arab Terrorists by Special Forces". Wegener knew that it "wouldn't be easy," Herzog writes: "For a few days, the Israeli officers treated him with extreme reserve." The then 43-year-old decided to tackle the matter head-on and therefore asked for a discussion with all the course participants. "In the evening, of course, I heard all sorts of things, the crimes of the National Socialists and so on. I understood all of that and replied that we are doing something for the future.” That was the right tone – from then on various Israeli specialists taught him the basics of violent hostage rescues.
Thus, the emerging GSG9 already had access to the necessary basic knowledge. However, Wegener still needed the right members (to date, they are all male). When the very first volunteers had completed their basic training in the spring of 1973, Wegener sent them on a promotional tour through various Federal Border Police (BGS) locations. "A column of heavy Mercedes 280 SE rushes up in close succession, also with flashing lights and sirens, and stops with squeaking tires in front of the officers' mess," Herzog describes such appearances: "On a radio command, two officers get out of each car and slam the doors sharply and stand next to the car, motionless and expressionless, beret on head, Puma hunting knife on left hip, service pistol on right hip, hanging low in a Clint Eastwood quick-draw holster.”
The latter in particular soon earned the first GSG9 members the reputation of being the "Djangos of the BGS". A completely hopeless approach to recruiting suitable staff, as the BGS psychologist Wolfgang Salewski knew. “Guys, you woo the wrong people with your appearance. You don't want that at all! Those are the ones I have to remove when the exam is about mental aptitude for such a job.” Although the anti-terrorist unit should and should use force to solve situations where negotiations are no longer of any use, Salewski wanted neither “Rambos” still have "warriors" in the troop. So no types “without a brain, but with a lot of muscles”.
When building the GSG9, the selection criteria were still somewhat vague, but that has now changed. Herzog quotes founding member Dieter Tutter: "The Rambo mentality is the worst thing that can happen." He sent two members of the elite unit back to their regular units - "demonstratively in front of the assembled team". That was of course a humiliation for the person concerned, but it was calculated: if you don't have one hundred percent control over yourself, you are unsuitable for the task.
Initially, the unit faced a great deal of malice. The GSG9 members were reviled as “training world champions”; the "Spiegel" dubbed them "the minister's overkiller". In 1974 a WELT reporter visited the troops' quarters: "There is a lot of shooting in Hangelar, with rifles and revolvers, an average of 360,000 rounds a year; shots are fired from every conceivable position, even from a flying helicopter.”
Nevertheless, Wegener and his people were unable to prevent the RAF terror from escalating in the German Autumn. After the kidnapping of employer president Hanns Martin Schleyer and the murder of four companions on September 5, 1977, coincidentally exactly five years to the day after the attack on Olympia, he was annoyed that he was quoted: “We have been practicing the typical anti-guerrilla for four and a half years -Kampf.” 180 GSG9 men were available – but the federal states, which are responsible for police matters, only rarely requested them. The own associations that were set up in parallel with the GSG9 were also unpopular with those responsible for politics.
"Special units - that smelled like remilitarization," Martin Herzog describes the reasons, "but the opposite was the order of the day: disarmament of the police." Spiegel" seriously talks about the "execution character". Although a corresponding regulation was already contained in the draft for new police laws of 1974/75, only three of the then eleven federal states put them into force by 1988. For so long, a fatal shot at a terrorist had to be justified with legal aid constructions such as emergency aid. And even in 2022, two federal states, Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, will still reject this regulation for pseudo-moral reasons.
At 2:10 a.m. on October 18, 1977, there was no discussion of legal issues in the “Landshut”. "Heads down! Where are the pigs?” yelled GSG9 man Dieter Fox as he charged forward through the narrow aisle from the rear right door of the 737, gun at the ready. After less than a minute, the situation was resolved; exactly who of the GSG9 shot dead three terrorists and disabled the fourth terrorist was never revealed. But that's not necessary either. It is enough to know that the liberation succeeded.
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