One of the things that Douglas Bland seems to be setting up as a kind of grand finale for the novel Uprising, is a kind gigantic showdown in the North: Will Boucanier, a traitor to Canada’s special forces community, will go toe-to-toe with the CSSR (the fictional version of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment) as the culmination of Op Thunder. This confrontation is set to take place on an epic stage, the Robert Bourassa Hydro Electric Dam at James’ Bay, which suggests a hell of a conclusion for the novel.
If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you can probably guess that this grande finale will fizzle out long before the novel’s over. But still, it sounds cool.
For readers who don’t follow these sort of things, Bland is essentially setting up the kind of confrontation that should be historic. The kind of mission where a single, purpose-built unit launches a desperate mission against an enemy who has several home ground advantages, and the power to inflict destruction upon millions. All for the purpose of an objective that will determine the fate of a grand, over-arching conflict.
To illustrate this argument, I want to use the two films we’re examining here today: 6 Days (2016-Vertical Entertainment), and The Raid on Entebbe (1976-20th Century Fox Home Entertainment). The first is a fairly recent film (which post-dates the writing of Uprising) but tells the real-life story of the Princess Gate siege, which occurred in 1980. The second is a much older made-for-tv film about the Israeli raid to rescue hostages held at Entebbe Airport in 1976. Both of them are good examples of of the sort of mission that we should be seeing from Bland’s novel.
The running themes throughout both films that I wanted to focus on here is the desperate importance of practice and rehearsal. No matter how naturally skilled, no matter how carefully trained, nobody can ever be truly ready for everything.
This is especially well illustrated in Six Days. Based on the memoir by Rusty Firmin (one of the SAS men involved), Six Days tells the story of the Iranian Embassy hostage crisis, where a group of Arab-Iranian militants seized the Iranian consulate at Princess Gate. After days of increasingly desperate negotiations, the British government (headed by Margaret Thatcher) ordered the SAS (Special Air Service-Britain’s special forces regiment) to storm the embassy and rescue the hostages.
We first meet SAS operator Rusty Firmin (played by Jaimie Bell) about twenty minutes into the film. He’s practicing a basic hostage rescue scenario: Enter the room, shoot the bad guys but not the hostage. From there he and his team are whisked away to Princess Gate (which had started just hours earlier) to prepare a hasty assault on the embassy if the terrorists carry out their threat to kill a hostage.
The SAS men are all well trained, but it’s made obvious right away that this is a bad idea. They have some basic floor plans to go off of, and have worked out a rough plan, but they have no clear idea what doors might be barricaded, how many terrorists there are or where they might be waiting. Essentially they’re going in blind and the film emphasizes this as the tension builds.
Luckily, cooler heads prevail and the negotiator (Inspector Max Vernon) manages to buy everyone some time through some tension-laced negotiations with terrorist leader Salim (rescuing a hostage in the process). This sets off the the second act of the film where the SAS men run through one plan after another, trying to keep ahead of a changing situation as Mr Max struggles to reason with Salim.
At first, the plan is to give the terrorists busses with which to travel to the airport, then storm the busses and rescue the hostages.
We’re then treated to a montage as the SAS run through the scenario again and again. They rush the bus, shatter the windows and storm down the aisle, while their commander glares at a stopwatch and curses them for being too slow.
After multiple exhausting run throughs they finally achieve a time that should be quick enough to save the hostages’ lives…only to be told that the bus option is off the table. The government doesn’t want it to be another Munich.
This is followed by preparing for what is called a ‘fortress assault’ where the SAS will storm the embassy building itself. But how to do it? As Mr Max struggles to placate Salim on the phone, the SAS try to pin down a workable plan for such a large building. At one point they propose sneaking in at night and killing the terrorists with silenced weapons…
…the reaction shot to this proposal is priceless.
Finally they settle on a plan involving a two pronged attack, coming from the top down, and the bottom up. Rehearsals begin as the negotiations become increasingly tense and desperate, but things are looking hopeful…
…until, in the eleventh hour, they track down the embassy’s janitor who informs them that the floor plans they’ve been working off of are out of date.
The film comes to its climax when the emotional stress among the terrorists finally boils over and a hostage is shot out of hand. In a scene that is genuinely horrific Mr Max is told that an assault is now inevitable, and he is given the job of distracting Salim. By keeping Salim on the line while the SAS move into position, it is hoped that he might add to the terrorists’ confusion and buy time for the rescue.
Until this point Max has been desperately fighting to keep everyone alive and in the process he has built up a strained rapport with Salim, but with a hostage dead he knows there will be no stopping the assault, and by distracting Salim he’s actually helping to sign this man’s death warrant.
The tension builds, the SAS men move into position. The team rappelling down the side of the building begin to descend, only to have a man become tangled in the rigging and accidentally kick out a window….
….as the saying goes: ‘No plan ever survives first contact.’
***Apologies. Due to the vagaries of ordering old movies off of Amazon, my copy of The Raid on Entebbe refused to play in my laptop. For this reason, I have been forced to get my still frames from Youtube, hence the poor quality.***
The Raid on Entebbe is much more of a slow burn film, beginning with the hijacking of Air France 139, which was seized by the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) just after lift off from Athens airport, and flown to Entebbe Uganda. It follows the agonizingly slow process as the Israeli government grappled with the implications of the attack, while the hostages confronted their plight. Eventually, as diplomatic options failed one by one, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) pulled together a mission to fly thousands of miles to Uganda and rescue the hostages in a night time raid.
The first hour of the film focuses almost exclusively on the experiences of the hostages as the plane is flown to Entebbe. There, the Israeli passengers are separated from the rest while the country’s President-for-Life Idi Amin Dada (in a surreal and excellent performance by Yaphet Kotto) struts around for his personal retinue of photographers. At first, he affects a concern for both sides, speaking of a negotiated solution that would bring the crisis to a peaceful end. Gradually, though, his true colours bleed through and his distain for Israel becomes clear.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government scrambles for a solution. At first there is hope that they will be supported by France, or maybe Britain. But as the non-Israeli hostages are released, other governments become increasingly reluctant to interfere with what is now seen as an Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Slowly, the Israeli commanders begin piecing together a rescue plan. Unlike 6 Days, the film doesn’t dwell too long on the rejected plans, one of which included dropping the troops into lake Victoria for a water-born assault. They do, however, mention the silver lining in the release of the non-Israeli hostages: It reduced the number of hostages needing rescue from over two hundred and fifty to a mere one hundred and one. Their agreed upon solution was presented whole-cloth almost immediately: a multi-plane air-mobile assault on Entebbe Airport as a whole.
***This is the plan that Bland seems to be cribbing for his planned CSSR assault on Chisasibbi. This ignores the fact that the plan Op Thunderbolt was arrived at after a great deal of study and practice. It was in no way a standard operating procedure for any special forces outfit, but a unique solution developed for a specific scenario.***
From there it’s another stop-watch based montage as the Israeli rescue force (who were actually a stitched together force from the Tzanchanim and Golani Brigades) run through the mission. Disembark. Vehicles approach the terminal. Sharpshooters kill the sentries. Forces dismount and close in. Assault and clear the terminal. Meanwhile follow up forces spread out across the airport to destroy the Ugandan Air Force fighters that were based there.
Much as in 6 Days, a great deal of screen time is given over to the supporting elements of the mission, in this case various departments within the Israeli government. Concurrent to the training montage is a series of scenes where government officials wrestle with vital issues. Can they convince Kenya to allow their planes to refuel? Is it possible that Idi Amin can be reasoned with?
Finally, with the rescue force already in the air and en route, Rabin must convince the Cabinet (many of whom did not like their PM) to approve the mission?
In real life OP Thunderbolt had some harrowing close calls that aren’t depicted in the film, possibly because the details weren’t known this soon after the raid. During the landing, the first Herc almost put a wheel into a ditch, which the pilot narrowly avoided in the last moment. The black Mercedes which the Israelis were using to impersonate a Ugandan staff car was an old clunker with a fancy new paint job that had to be repaired during training. As the Herc rolled down the runway and the assault was seconds from beginning, there was a heart-stopping moment when it looked as though it might not start.
Now, the film 6 Days came out seven years after Uprising was published, but I included it in with The Raid on Entebbe because the mission it depicts (much like the one Raid depicts) loomed large in the minds of military men from Bland’s era. Entebbe and Princess Gate were the definitive special forces missions of the 1970s-80s, while Operation Eagle Claw (the American Delta Force’s failed mission to rescue hostages in Iran) was the definitive failure.
Hell, the Israeli operation was code-named OP Thunderbolt. Bland calls his NPA assault on the dam OP Thunder, for fuck’s sake.
In his history of the Oka crisis, Timothy Winegard describes how, shortly after the SQ raid on the Pines, the CF began studying the problem of how to fight the Mohawk Warriors, should the need arise. As the situation escalated and mobilization orders came down, the preparations went beyond the planning stages and became practical.
Among other things, mock-ups of the barricades around the Pines, at Mercier Bridge, and Kanawake were constructed in isolated locations (well away from prying eyes) and rehearsals were conducted. Contingency plans to storm the Reserves and the Pines were drawn up, to the point that at various points during the Crisis the Canadian Airborne Regiment was placed on as little as six hours’ notice to move.
Now at Oka, the CAF was not explicitly deploying with the intent to fight. In fact the plan from the beginning was to avoid a violent confrontation and the ROEs reflected this. But the military was deployed with the understanding that, if push came to shove, they would win. No matter what it took.
I wanted to put these two film examples (as well as Winegard’s real life example) forward because in the next several sections of Uprising we’re going to witness Bland’s version of the Airborne half-ass their way into a mission that (from the numbers if not the stakes) should be one of the most vital and desperate of Canada’s history.
No time will be given over to planning or rehearsal, but this will not be the fault of the evil double-PC government. Gen Bishop and his HQ haven’t sent any concrete warning orders to any unit to prepare for an assault on James Bay. Their first heads up will come after the dam has been seized, and they will jump a day later. Nor will the manly-men of Gen Bishop’s see anything wrong with launching such a mission in the last minute.
The entire point of studying history is to avoid repeating its mistakes. Here, it almost seems like Bland won’t even learn to imitate the successes properly.
 If anyone’s wondering, yes, the SAS did train with live ammo and live hostages. Specifically, the commanders were expected to occasionally fill this role, and have their troops rescue them from a force of evil terrorist mannequins. This was considered an important part of leadership: Once the team was trained to the level that they could conduct a hostage rescue, the commander was expected to justify his faith in them by sitting in the place of the hostage, confident that the live bullets fired by his men would never hit him by mistake.
 There’s an epic Squee moment for training nerds like me in this scene: on the first run through, the SAS men smash out the glass in the bus’s windows as part of the assault. On subsequent run throughs, the windows are now glass-free, but the attacking soldiers still go through the motions of smashing out the empty windows anyway in order to build that muscle memory. That’s the way you do it.
 This is why the Janitor or Cleaning Lady is always your best source of information. They know everything about their building.
 The real life Idi Amin was an odd breed of anti-Semite who had several Jewish friends even as he openly touted the lies that filled his personal copy of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ I want to go on record as saying that while Yaphet Kotto’s performance as Idi Amin was impressive, it was Forest Whitaker who really nailed it in the film ‘The Last King of Scotland.’ Idi Amin was one of those truly bizarre characters, and if you don’t believe me, check out Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 work ‘General Idi Amin Dada,’ a documentary made about the real life dictator. Mr Whitaker nailed it perfectly. Look upon his performance and despair. (The documentary is my source for for the Protocols story, which is relayed by the dictator himself.)
 This plan was dropped after a practice run identified problems with the rafts (some of the cells ruptured in the drop). Also, a number of commandos expressed concern about crocodiles. I don’t know if crocodiles were a problem in Lake Victoria, but Idi Amin was infamous for disposing of the bodies of his enemies in croc-infested rivers, so I don’t blame them (Schroeder’s doc is a source for this story as well).
 Winegard, Timothy C. “Oka: A convergence of cultures and the Canadian Forces” 2008. Canadian Defence Academy Press. This blog discusses his work in greater detail here, during my posts on the Oka Crisis.
 It’s not made clear if they would have flown into Montreal, disembarked and joined a ground assault, or if they would have actually jumped into Kanawake. Either way, it would have been an ugly conclusion to a very nasty fight.