From The Daily Telegraph 6 January.
Ulrich Wegener, who has died aged 88, founded GSG-9, the elite German anti-terrorist unit which, aided by Britain’s SAS, won its spurs in 1977 when he led the successful storming of a hijacked Lufthansa jet at Mogadishu airport.
Five years before, Wegener, a lieutenant-colonel in the border police, had been the liaison for West Germany’s Interior Ministry at the Munich Olympics. He had watched aghast as, first, Palestinian terrorists took hostage 11 Israeli athletes, and then the Bavarian authorities, unprepared for such an eventuality, bungled an attempted rescue. Nine of the hostages died, as well as a police officer.
Three weeks later, Wegener was charged by his minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher with forming a force capable of responding to similar emergencies. Although Germany could lay claim to some of the first special forces’ operations, their Brandenburger commandos having caused havoc at times during the Second World War, by the Seventies the only nations with standing counter-revolutionary warfare units were Israel and Britain.
Wegener trained both with the SAS and Sayeret Mat’kal and in 1976 secretly participated in Israel’s raid on Entebbe airport, Uganda, which led to the freeing of passengers from a hijacked aircraft. Wegener was always cagey about his role in the operation, which claimed the life of its leader, the brother of current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it involved gathering intelligence on the terrorists’ supporters.
It was, however, to Britain that he turned when, on October 13 1977, Lufthansa Flight 181 from Palma to Frankfurt was seized by four hijackers. They were two men and two women, two being Palestinian and two Lebanese. Aboard the airliner were five crew and 86 other passengers, a dozen of them German beauty queens returning from Majorca.
The terrorists demanded that West Germany release 10 members of the Red Army Faction, or Baader-Meinhof Gang, then held in Stuttgart prison. They also asked for Turkey to free two Palestinians – and for a ransom of 35 million marks (then £10 million).
In the previous months, the government of Helmut Schmidt had come under increasing pressure as far-Left terrorists had assassinated a series of prominent officials and industrialists. Most recently, they had kidnapped the head of West Germany’s equivalent of the CBI, Hanns Martin Schleyer.
Determined not to give in to terrorism, Schmidt telephoned Britain’s prime minister, James Callaghan. At Wegener’s request, the SAS then dispatched to the Gulf two soldiers – Major Alastair Morrison, second-in-command of 22 SAS, and Sergeant Barry Davies – equipped with a secret weapon Wegener hoped would shorten the odds: “flash-bang” concussion grenades.
By then, the Boeing-737 had made a tortuous round of the Middle East. Landing first in Rome, where the Italians reasoned that if they refuelled the jet it would become someone else’s problem, it next made its way to Larnaca, Bahrain and on to Dubai.
Wegener, a stickler for detail, had battled bureaucracy to get both the personnel and equipment he wanted for GSG-9, such as better ropes for abseiling from helicopters and mock-ups of every kind of aircraft. At Dubai, he mounted dry runs for an attack, but in the meantime the Boeing took off again.
When it reached Aden, the pilot, Jürgen Schumann, who had managed to reveal the number of hijackers, was killed in cold blood in front of the passengers. They were then doused in spirits and threatened with being set alight.
On October 17, the aeroplane landed at Mogadishu, Somalia. Wegener was given permission to proceed with Operation Feuerzauber – Fire Magic. The terrorists were told that the Baader-Meinhof prisoners were being released and, while the control tower had their attention, Somali troops further distracted them by setting fire to an oil drum in front of the aircraft.
Just after 0200, as the attackers rushed into the cockpit to see what was going on, both passenger doors and the emergency door over the port wing were blown by magnetic charges.
Four assault groups carrying black-painted ladders had been hiding in the blind spot under the tail of the aircraft, though they later realised the lights on the control tower had been projecting their shadows. Stun grenades were thrown by the SAS men (dressed in GSG gear to avoid confusion) through the emergency door and over the cockpit.
Wegener, then aged 48, led in the first section and shot one of the terrorists. Strapped in their seats, the passengers had to endure a gun battle for several minutes – the fire passed over their heads – before all four attackers were neutralised, with only one surviving.
Morrison carried one of the beauty queens off the aircraft as Davies shouted: “I’m afraid you will have to give her back!” A delighted Wegener was able to send to send Schmidt the code word for success – Frühlingszeit! (“Springtime!”)
Three leading Red Army Faction members were found dead in their cells that night, while the body of Schleyer was recovered soon after. Wegener was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit.
Full obituary with photographs.
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The life and times of the Greatest Generation, the heroes (British and Allies) of WWII.