The Munich massacre is a common reference name for an attack that occurred during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Bavaria, in southern West Germany, when 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and eventually killed, along with a German police officer, by the Palestinian group Black September. Shortly after the crisis began, they demanded the release of 234 prisoners held in Israeli jails, and the release of the founders (Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof) of the German Red Army Faction, who were held in German prisons. Black September called the operation “Ikrit and Biram”, after two Christian Palestinian villages whose inhabitants were expelled by the Haganah in 1948.
The attackers were apparently given logistical assistance by German neo-Nazis. Five of the eight members of Black September were killed by police officers during a failed rescue attempt. The three surviving assassins were captured, but later released by West Germany following the hijacking by Black September of a Lufthansa airliner. Israel responded to the killers’ release with Operation Spring of Youth and Operation Wrath of God, during which Israeli intelligence and special forces systematically tracked down and killed Palestinians suspected of involvement in the massacre.
On the evening of 4 September, the Israeli athletes enjoyed a night out, watching a performance of Fiddler on the Roof and dining with the play’s star, Israeli actor Shmuel Rodensky, before returning to the Olympic Village. On the return trip in the team bus, Lalkin denied his 13-year-old son, who had befriended weightlifter Yossef Romano and wrestler Eliezer Halfin, permission to spend the night in their apartment — an innocent refusal that probably saved the boy’s life.
At 4:30 a.m. local time on 5 September, as the athletes slept, eight tracksuit-clad members of the Black September faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, carrying duffel bags loaded with AKM assault rifles, Tokarev pistols, and grenades scaled a two-meter chain-link fence with the assistance of unsuspecting athletes who were also sneaking into the Olympic Village. The athletes were originally identified as Americans, but were claimed to be Canadians decades later. Once inside, they used stolen keys to enter two apartments being used by the Israeli team at 31 Connollystraße, breaking into the Israeli quarters in the Olympic Village to take the Israeli Olympic delegation athletes and coaches hostage.
Yossef Gutfreund, a wrestling referee, was awakened by a faint scratching noise at the door of Apartment 1, which housed the Israeli coaches and officials. When he investigated, he saw the door begin to open and masked men with guns on the other side. He shouted a warning to his sleeping roommates and threw his nearly 300 lb. (135 kg) weight against the door in a futile attempt to stop the intruders from forcing their way in. Gutfreund’s actions gave his roommate, weightlifting coach Tuvia Sokolovsky, enough time to smash a window and escape. Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg fought the intruders, who shot him through his cheek and then forced him to help them find more hostages. Leading the intruders past Apartment 2, Weinberg lied by telling them that the residents of the apartment were not Israelis. Instead, Weinberg led them to Apartment 3, which housed Israel’s bigger wrestlers and weightlifters; there, the gunmen corralled six wrestlers and weightlifters as additional hostages. It is possible that Weinberg hoped that the stronger men would have a better chance of fighting off the attackers, but they were all surprised in their sleep.
As the athletes from Apartment 3 were marched back to the coaches’ apartment, the wounded Weinberg again attacked the gunmen, allowing one of his wrestlers, Gad Tsobari, to escape via the underground parking garage. The burly Weinberg knocked one of the intruders unconscious and slashed another with a fruit knife before being shot to death. They shot and killed Weinberg, and threw his body out a window onto the sidewalk. Weightlifter Yossef Romano, a veteran of the Six-Day War, also attacked and wounded one of the intruders before being shot and killed.
The gunmen were left with nine hostages. They were, in addition to Gutfreund, sharpshooting coach Kehat Shorr, track and field coach Amitzur Shapira, fencing master Andre Spitzer, weightlifting judge Yakov Springer, wrestlers Eliezer Halfin and Mark Slavin, and weightlifters David Berger and Ze’ev Friedman. Berger was an expatriate American with dual citizenship; Slavin, at 18 the youngest of the hostages, had only arrived in Israel from the Soviet Union four months before the Olympic Games began. Gutfreund, physically the largest of the hostages, was bound to a chair (Groussard describes him as being tied up like a mummy); the rest were lined up four apiece on the two beds in Springer and Shapira’s room, and bound at the wrists and ankles and then to each other. Romano’s bullet-riddled corpse was left at his bound comrades’ feet as a warning.
Of the other members of Israel’s team, racewalker Professor Shaul Ladany had been jolted awake in Apartment 2 by Gutfreund’s screams. He escaped by jumping by jumping from his bedroom’s rear window onto the lawn below, as machine gun bullets whistled by him. He then awakened American track coach Bill Bowerman, and alerted the German police. Bowerman called for the U.S. Marines to come and protect American Jewish Olympians swimmer Mark Spitz and javelin thrower Bill Schmidt. Ladany was the first person to spread the alert as to the attack. The other four residents of Apartment 2 (sharpshooters Henry Hershkowitz and Zelig Stroch, and fencers Dan Alon and Yehuda Weisenstein), plus Chef De Mission Shmuel Lalkin and the two team doctors, managed to hide and later fled the besieged building. The two female members of Israel’s Olympic team, sprinter and hurdler Esther Shahamorov and swimmer Shlomit Nir, were housed in a separate part of the Olympic Village. Three more members of Israel’s Olympic team, two sailors and their manager, were housed in Kiel, 550 miles (900 km) from Munich.
The assassins were subsequently reported to be part of the Palestinian fedayeen from refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. They were identified as Luttif Afif (Issa), the leader (three of Issa’s brothers were also reportedly members of Black September, two of them in Israeli jails), his deputy Yusuf Nazzal (Tony), and junior members Afif Ahmed Hamid (Paolo), Khalid Jawad (Salah), Ahmed Chic Thaa (Abu Halla), Mohammed Safady (Badran), Adnan Al-Gashey (Denawi), and his cousin Jamal Al-Gashey (Samir). According to author Simon Reeve, Afif, Nazzal and one of their confederates had all worked in various capacities in the Olympic Village, and had spent a couple of weeks scouting out their potential target. A member of the Uruguayan Olympic delegation, which shared housing with the Israelis, claims that he found Nazzal actually inside 31 Connollystraße less than 24 hours before the attack, but since he was recognized as a worker in the Village, nothing was thought of it at the time. The other members of the group entered Munich via train and plane in the days before the attack. All of the members of the Uruguay and Hong Kong Olympic teams, which also shared the building with the Israelis, were released unharmed during the crisis.
The authorities feigned agreement to the Cairo demand, (although Egyptian Prime Minister Aziz Sedki had already told the German authorities that the Egyptians did not wish to become involved in the hostage crisis), and at 10:10 p.m. a bus carried the hostages and terrorists from 31 Connollystraße to two Bell UH-1 military helicopters, which were to transport them to nearby Fürstenfeldbruck, a NATO airbase. Initially, the perpetrators’ plan was to go to Riem, which was the international airport near Munich at the time, but the negotiators convinced them that Fürstenfeldbruck would be more practical. The authorities, who preceded the Black Septemberists and hostages in a third helicopter, had an ulterior motive: they planned an armed assault at the airport.
The five German snipers who were chosen to ambush the kidnappers had been selected because they shot competitively on weekends. During a subsequent German investigation, an officer identified as “Sniper No. 2” stated: “I am of the opinion that I am not a sharpshooter.” The five snipers were deployed around the airport — three on the roof of the control tower, one hidden behind a service truck and one behind a small signal tower at ground level — but none of them had any special training. The members of the crisis team — Schreiber, Genscher, Merk and Schreiber’s deputy Georg Wolf — supervised and observed the attempted rescue from the airport control tower. Cooley, Reeve and Groussard all place Mossad chief Zvi Zamir and Victor Cohen, one of Zamir’s senior assistants, at the scene as well, but as observers only. Zamir has stated repeatedly in interviews over the years that he was never consulted by the Germans at any time during the rescue attempt and that he thought that his presence actually made the Germans uncomfortable.
A Boeing 727 jet was positioned on the tarmac with five or six armed German police inside dressed as flight crew. It was agreed that Issa and Tony would inspect the plane. The plan was that the Germans would overpower them as they boarded, giving the snipers a chance to kill the remaining terrorists at the helicopters. These were believed to number no more than two or three, according to what Genscher and Tröger had seen inside 31 Connollystraße. However, during the transfer from the bus to the helicopters, the crisis team discovered that there were actually eight of them.
At the last minute, as the helicopters were arriving at Fürstenfeldbruck, the German police aboard the airplane voted to abandon their mission, without consulting the central command. This left only the five sharpshooters to try to overpower a larger and more heavily armed group. At that point, Colonel Ulrich Wegener, Genscher’s senior aide and later the founder of the elite German counter-terrorist unit GSG 9, said “I’m sure this will blow the whole affair!”
The helicopters landed just after 10:30 p.m. and the four pilots and six of the kidnappers emerged. While four of the Black September members held the pilots at gunpoint (breaking an earlier promise that they would not take any Germans hostage), Issa and Tony walked over to inspect the jet, only to find it empty. Realizing they had been lured into a trap, they sprinted back toward the helicopters. As they ran past the control tower, Sniper 3 took one last opportunity to eliminate Issa, which would have left the group leaderless. However, due to the poor lighting, he struggled to see his target and missed, hitting Tony in the thigh instead. Meanwhile, the German authorities gave the order for snipers positioned nearby to open fire, which occurred around 11:00 p.m.
In the ensuing chaos, two of the kidnappers (Ahmed Chic Thaa and Afif Ahmed Hamid) holding the helicopter pilots were killed, and the remaining gunmen (one or two of whom may have already been wounded) scrambled to safety, returning fire from behind and beneath the helicopters, out of the snipers’ line of sight, shooting out many of the airport lights. A German policeman in the control tower, Anton Fliegerbauer, was killed by the gunfire. The helicopter pilots fled; the hostages, tied up inside the craft, could not. During the gun battle, the hostages secretly worked on loosening their bonds and teethmarks were found on some of the ropes after the gunfire had ended.
The Germans had not arranged for armored personnel carriers ahead of time and only at this point were they called in to break the deadlock. Since the roads to the airport had not been cleared, the carriers became stuck in traffic and finally arrived around midnight. With their appearance, the kidnappers felt the shift in the status quo, and possibly panicked at the thought of the failure of their operation. At four minutes past midnight of 6 September, one of them (likely Issa) turned on the hostages in the eastern helicopter and fired at them with a Kalashnikov assault rifle from point-blank range. Springer, Halfin and Friedman were killed instantly; Berger, shot twice in the leg, is believed to have survived the initial onslaught (as his autopsy later found that he had died of smoke inhalation). The attacker then pulled the pin on a hand grenade and tossed it into the cockpit; the ensuing explosion destroyed the helicopter and incinerated the bound Israelis inside.
Issa then dashed across the tarmac and began firing at the police, who killed him with return fire. Another, Khalid Jawad, attempted to escape and was gunned down by one of the snipers. What happened to the remaining hostages is still a matter of dispute. A German police investigation indicated that one of their snipers and a few of the hostages may have been shot inadvertently by the police. However, a Time Magazine reconstruction of the long-suppressed Bavarian prosecutor’s report indicates that a third kidnapper (Reeve identifies Adnan Al-Gashey) stood at the door of the western helicopter and raked the remaining five hostages with machine gun fire; Gutfreund, Shorr, Slavin, Spitzer and Shapira were shot an average of four times each. Of the four hostages in the eastern helicopter, only Ze’ev Friedman’s body was relatively intact; he had been blown clear of the helicopter by the explosion. In some cases, the exact cause of death for the hostages in the eastern helicopter was difficult to establish because the rest of the corpses were burned almost beyond recognition in the explosion and subsequent fire.
Three of the remaining men lay on the ground, one of them feigning death, and were captured by police. Jamal Al-Gashey had been shot through his right wrist, and Mohammed Safady had sustained a flesh wound to his leg. Adnan Al-Gashey had escaped injury completely. Tony escaped the scene, but was tracked down with police dogs 40 minutes later in an airbase parking lot. Cornered and bombarded with tear gas, he was shot dead after a brief gunfight. By around 1:30 a.m., the battle was over.
Initial news reports, published all over the world, indicated that all the hostages were alive, and that all the attackers had been killed. Only later did a representative for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suggest that “initial reports were overly optimistic.” Jim McKay, who was covering the Olympics that year for ABC, had taken on the job of reporting the events as Roone Arledge fed them into his earpiece. At 3:24 a.m., McKay received the official confirmation:
We just got the final word … you know, when I was a kid, my father used to say “Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.” Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They’ve now said that there were eleven hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.
A number of television, radio, and newspaper reports listed Ladany as one of those killed. One headline stated: “Ladany Could Not Escape his Fate in Germany for a Second Time”. Ladany recalled later:
The impact did not hit me at the time, when we were in Munich. It was when we arrived back in Israel. At the airport in Lod there was a huge crowd – maybe 20,000, people – and each one of us, the survivors, stood by one of the coffins on the runway. Some friends came up to me and tried to kiss me and hug me as if I was almost a ghost that came back alive. It was then that I really grasped what had happened and the emotion hit me.
Author Simon Reeve, among others, writes that the shootout with the well-trained Black September members showed an egregious lack of preparation on the part of the German authorities. They were not prepared to deal with this sort of situation. This costly lesson led directly to the founding, less than two months later, of police counter-terrorism branch GSG 9.
The authors argue that German authorities made a number of mistakes. First, because of restrictions in the post-war West German constitution, the army could not participate in the attempted rescue, as the German armed forces are not allowed to operate inside Germany during peacetime. The responsibility was entirely in the hands of the Munich police and the Bavarian authorities.
It was known a half-hour before the hostages and kidnappers had even arrived at Fürstenfeldbruck that the number of the latter was larger than first believed. Despite this new information, Schreiber decided to continue with the rescue operation as originally planned and the new information could not reach the snipers since they had no radios. It is a basic tenet of sniping operations that there are enough snipers (at least two for each known target, or in this case a minimum of ten) deployed to neutralize as many of the attackers as possible with the first volley of shots. The 2006 National Geographic Channel’s Seconds From Disaster profile on the massacre stated that the helicopters were supposed to land sideways and to the west of the control tower, a maneuver which would have allowed the snipers clear shots into them as the kidnappers threw open the helicopter doors. Instead, the helicopters were landed facing the control tower and at the centre of the airstrip. This not only gave them a place to hide after the gunfight began, but put Snipers 1 and 2 in the line of fire of the other three snipers on the control tower. The snipers were denied valuable shooting opportunities as a result of the positioning of the helicopters, stacking the odds against what were effectively three snipers versus eight heavily armed gunmen.
According to the same program, the crisis committee delegated to make decisions on how to deal with the incident consisted of Bruno Merk (the Bavarian interior minister), Hans-Dietrich Genscher (the West German interior minister) and Manfred Schreiber (Munich’s Chief of Police); in other words, two politicians and one tactician. The program mentioned that a year before the Games, Schreiber had participated in another hostage crisis (a failed bank robbery) in which he ordered a marksman to shoot one of the perpetrators, who was only wounded. As a result, the robbers shot dead an innocent woman and Schreiber had been charged with involuntary manslaughter. An investigation ultimately cleared him of any wrongdoing, but the program suggested that the prior incident affected his judgment in the subsequent Olympic hostage crisis.
As mentioned earlier, the five German snipers at Fürstenfeldbruck did not have radio contact with one another (nor with the German authorities conducting the rescue operation) and therefore were unable to coordinate their fire. The only contact the snipers had with the operational leadership was with Georg Wolf, who was lying next to the three snipers on the control tower giving orders directly to them. The two snipers at ground level had been given vague instructions to shoot when the other snipers began shooting, and were basically left to fend for themselves.
In addition, the snipers did not have the proper equipment for this hostage rescue operation. The Heckler & Koch G3 battle rifles used were considered by several experts to be inadequate for the distance at which the snipers were trying to shoot. The G3, the standard service rifle of the Bundeswehr at that time, had a 20-inch (510 mm) barrel; at the distances the snipers were required to shoot, a 27-inch (690 mm) barrel would have ensured far greater accuracy. None of the rifles were equipped with telescopic or infrared sights. Additionally, none of the snipers were equipped with a steel helmet or bullet-proof vest. No armored vehicles were at the scene at Fürstenfeldbruck, and were only called in after the gunfight was well underway.
There were also numerous tactical errors. As mentioned earlier, “Sniper 2”, who was stationed behind the signal tower, wound up directly in the line of fire of his fellow snipers on the control tower, without any protective gear and without any other police being aware of his location. Because of this, “Sniper 2” didn’t fire a single shot until late in the gunfight, when hostage-taker Khalid Jawad attempted to escape on foot and ran right at the exposed sniper. “Sniper 2” killed the fleeing perpetrator but was in turn badly wounded by a fellow police officer, who was unaware that he was shooting at one of his own men. One of the helicopter pilots, Gunnar Ebel, was lying near “Sniper 2” and was also wounded by friendly fire. Both Ebel and the sniper recovered from their injuries.
No police officer posing as a crewmember on the Boeing 727 was prosecuted or reprimanded for abandoning his post. Many of the police officers and border guards who were approached for interviews by the One Day in September production team were threatened with the loss of their pension rights if they talked for the film. Many of the errors made by the Germans during the rescue attempt were ultimately detailed by Heinz Hohensinn, who had participated in the operation, but had taken early retirement and had no pension to lose.
To read more on the Munich massacre, please visit the Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Munich_massacre
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- ^ Interview with Ulrich Wegener in One Day in September.
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