The Hostage taking and the Police operation
On the morning of 5th September, a hostage situation took place in the Olympic Village. In the late evening of the same day, the police attempt to free the hostages failed. Who were the hostage-takers and what did they want to achieve? How were the hostages taken? What plans did the police in Munich consider? Why was there an attempt to free the hostages in Fürstenfeldbruck and what happened there?
The founding of the State of Israel and the Six Day War
The massacre at the Olympics took place in front of the backdrop of the so-called Middle-East conflict. The core of the Middle-East conflict is competing claims to a region from Israel and various rivalling Palestinian groups on the land between Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.
As a result of the Second World War and the Shoah, in 1948, the state of Israel was founded on formerly British mandated territory as a site of immigration for people of Jewish faith. The UN decided on the separation of the region into Israeli and Palestinian areas. The Arab States rejected the founding of the Israeli state. Numerous armed clashes ensued.
During the so-called Six Day War of 1967, Israel conquered parts of the Palestinian area; many of the people living there lost their homes. Thus, not only people living in the Palestinian area are described as Palestinian, but also those people living in refugee camps and in exile, as well as their children, who feel they belong to the country. The Middle-East conflict has not been resolved to this day.
The Fatah and the founding of ‘Black September’
After the defeat of the Arab States in the Six Day War against Israel in June 1967, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) developed into an independent political actor in the Middle East under Yassir Arafat.
The Fatah, a faction within the PLO, fought as a Palestinian guerrilla organisation against Israel. ‘Black September’ was a military arm of the Fatah. The founder was Salah Khalaf, also known under his battle name, Abu Ijad. Khalaf stood firmly by the side of Arafat.
The name ‘Black September’ referred to the war between the Palestinian groups and the Jordanian armed forces in September 1970. These battles represented a turning point in the history of the Palestinians: many thousands of Palestinians died in this war.
‘Black September’ and the 1972 Olympics
Members of ‘Black September’ carried out attacks on the Israeli civilian population, on Israeli facilities and on politicians from various North African and Arab States. Their declared goal was to draw attention to the fate of the Palestinians through the attacks and create global media publicity. Western Europe in particular became a stage for the armed activities of ‘Black September’. The leadership level of the organisation consisted of Abu Ijad’s trusted inner circle. The highest ranking of them was Mohammed Daoud Oudeh, also known as Abu Daoud. He was the strategic head behind the hostage-taking in Munich. Abu Ijad later explained the choice of the Olympic Games in Munich as the stage for the hostage-taking by stating that the International Olympic Committee had rejected an independent Palestinian team in the Olympic Games.
"In early 1972, the PLO sent an official letter to the Olympic Committee requesting that a Palestinian team be allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. Since this letter went unanswered, a second letter followed. But again there was no reply - only contemptuous silence. Apparently, we were non-existent to this respectable institution that pretends to be apolitical. Perhaps we were not even allowed to exist for them."
The planning of the Olympic massacre
In spring 1972, several meetings took place in Beirut in which Abu Ijad called for armed action in Munich. The main aim for him was to force the release of ‘Palestinian freedom fighters’ from Israeli prisons and to make the world aware of the fate of the Palestinians. Although some PLO functionaries rejected taking action during the Olympic Games, the leaders of ‘Black September’ stuck to the hostage taking plan in Munich. Mohammed Mussalha was named as the leader of the group, calling himself ‘Issa’ during the hostage taking, his deputy was Yussuf Nazzal, who used the cover names ‘Che Guevara’ and ‘Tony’. Issa and Tony were already living in Munich months before the hostage-taking. Six further group members from various countries only arrived shortly before the massacre. The six young men had previously received short military training exercises and only found out about the plan to take Israeli athletes hostage in Munich.
and meeting in Munich
In the early summer of 1972, Issa and Tony, the two leaders of the Palestinian group, scouted the Olympic site. They saw how the Olympic Village was constructed, memorised the facility and looked for possible security gaps on the site.
Various helpers supported the group in the following months with information, logistics and weapons. While the Israeli athletes spent the evening of 4th September at a theatre in Munich’s city centre, the eight members of ‘Black September’ who would carry out the massacre the following day, met for the first time.
The start of the hostage taking
On 5th September, shortly after 4 a.m. the eight men climbed over the two meter high wire-netting fence which surrounded the Olympic Village and went to the accommodation of the Israeli athletes in Connollystraße 31. They carried sports bags containing submachine guns and hand grenades.
They entered the two floor building through an unlocked outside door and forced their way into the apartment one after the other with weapons held ready to fire.
The referee Yossef Gutfreund pushed himself against the door and enabled his team colleague, Tuvia Sokolsk, to escape. The Israeli athletes Dan Alon, Gad Tsabari, Yehuda Weinstain, Henry Hershkovitz, Zelig Shtorch and Shaul Ladany were also able to escape.
The group members opened fire on Moshe Weinberg and Yossef Romano, who refused to follow the orders of the hostage-takers. Weinberg died immediately; Romano later succumbed to his injuries.
The hostage-takers captured Yossef Gutfreund, Kehat Schor, Amitzur Shapira, Yakov Springer, Mark Slavin, Andrei Spitzer, Eliezer Halfin, Ze’ev Friedman and David Berger.
The security service did not initially notice that the group had forced their way into Connollystraße 31. Shots were reported to the police shortly before 5 a.m.
Die arrogante Haltung des' israelischen Militärregimes und seine Weigerung auf unsere Forderungen einzugehen würden uns, nicht dazu verführen unsere menschliche Haltung aufzugeben und in unseren Bemühungen fortzufahren einen Weg zu finden um die israelischen Gefangenen unter folgenden Bedingungen zu retten: 1. Die Bundesrepublik soll ihre Bereitschaft erklären, die israelischen Gefangenen an jeden beliebigen Platz zu bringen, der von unseren revolutionären Kräften im Olympischen Dorf bestimmt wird. 2. Die Bundesrepublik hat unsere Streitkräfte mit drei Flugzeugen auszustatten, an deren Bord die israelischen Gefangenen zusammen mit unseren bewaffneten Kräften in drei aufeinanderfolgenden Gruppen an einen noch zu bestimmenden Ort gebracht werden. Jede Gruppe wird München verlassen sobald die vorhergehende Gruppe ihr Ziel erreicht hat. 3. Jeder Versuch unsere Operation' zu stören wird mit der Liquidierung aller israelischen Gefangenen enden und die Bundesrepublik wird dafür verantwortlich gemacht werden. 4. Dieses Ultimatum läuft in drei Stunden ab. Von dann an wird die Bundesrepublik die volle Verantwortung für alle Konsequenzen tragen. 5. Nach Ablauf des Ultimatums werden unsere revolutionären Kräfte, f Die arrogante Haltung des' israelischen Militärregimes und seine Weigerung auf unsere Forderungen einzugehen würden uns, nicht dazu verführen unsere menschliche Haltung aufzugeben und in unseren Bemühungen fortzufahren einen Weg zu finden um die israelischen Gefangenen unter folgenden Bedingungen zu retten: 1. Die Bundesrepublik soll ihre Bereitschaft erklären, die israelischen Gefangenen an jeden beliebigen Platz zu bringen, der von unseren revolutionären Kräften im Olympischen Dorf bestimmt wird. 2. Die Bundesrepublik hat unsere Streitkräfte mit drei Flugzeugen auszustatten, an deren Bord die israelischen Gefangenen zusammen mit unseren bewaffneten Kräften in drei aufeinanderfolgenden Gruppen an einen noch zu bestimmenden Ort gebracht werden. Jede Gruppe wird München verlassen sobald die vorhergehende Gruppe ihr Ziel erreicht hat. 3. Jeder Versuch unsere Operation' zu stören wird mit der Liquidierung aller israelischen Gefangenen enden und die Bundesrepublik wird dafür verantwortlich gemacht werden. 4. Dieses Ultimatum läuft in drei Stunden ab. Von dann an wird die Bundesrepublik die volle Verantwortung für alle Konsequenzen tragen. 5. Nach Ablauf des Ultimatums werden unsere revolutionären Kräfte, f
The hostage-takers’ demands
In the early morning, Issa, the leader of the group, threw a typed declaration out of the window. In it, the hostage-takers demanded the release of 326 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel as well as the release of Kōzō Okamoto, a member of the Japanese Red Army, who was also imprisoned in Israel and the release of Ulrike Meinhof, who sat in a German prison as a member of the RAF.
This was to take place by 9 a.m. In addition, the group demanded to be flown to an Arab country along with the Israeli hostages. The exchange of hostages was to take place there. In the event that the demands were not met, the hostage-takers threatened to kill the hostages.
The English-language communiqués of the 'Black September' with German translation and the complete list of the 328 detainees whom the Kommando wanted to free. Source: Munich State Archives, Munich Public Prosecutor's Office, 37430/7
At 5:40 a.m. the Munich police president Manfred Schreiber reached the Olympic Village and set up an operations centre on site. German Federal Minister of the Interior Hans-Dietrich Genscher and the Bavarian Minister of the Interior Bruno Merk appeared a short time later at the Olympic site and formed the core of the crisis team with Schreiber. The German Federal Government under Chancellor Willy Brandt authorised the crisis team to do everything necessary to save the hostages.
Initially, there were various plans to storm Connollystraße 31 with armed forces. A further consideration was to anesthetise the hostage takers and with them also the Jewish athletes using poisonous gas – an idea as macabre as it is forgotten in history. The plan was abandoned due to safety concerns.
The crisis team held talks with the Israeli government and made contact with the various Arab States, hoping that they could convince the hostage-takers to give up their plan. Hans-Dietrich Genscher regularly informed the German Federal Government about how events were proceeding in Munich.
The crisis team tried to win time and negotiate new ultimatums with the hostage-takers for meeting demands again and again. The offer of the crisis team to take a high-ranking German politician as a replacement hostage in exchange for the Israeli athletes was rejected by the group members.
The Israeli government let it be known via their ambassador in the Federal Republic of Germany, Eliashiv Ben Horin, at 11:15 a.m. that the release of prisoners was out of the question. They would not be blackmailed. The Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, stuck to this decision throughout the course of the hostage-taking.
Ambassador Ben Horin emphasised that Israel had faith in the decisions of the German authorities to save the hostages and demanded the sporting competitions were suspended until the hostage-taking was ended.
The situation in the Olympic Village
During the course of the day, more and more people gathered in the Olympic Village. The Munich police estimated that around 70,000 viewers pushed their way to the site. In addition, there were thousands of reporters, television teams and photographers with telephoto lenses. Broadcasters from across the world reported live on the hostage-taking and also filmed the police preparations. Nobody considered that the hostage-takers also had a television in the apartment.
A change in the hostage-takers’ plan and discussions with the hostages
Shortly before the ultimatum, which had now been shifted to 5 p.m. the group leader Issa demand that the group and hostages be flown to Cairo, in order to continue the negotiations for the release of the prisoners from there. However, first the crisis team wanted to get an idea of the state of the hostages’ health and reassure themselves that they agreed to the flight, as the hostage-takers claimed. Issa allowed the restrained Gutfreund, Spitzer and Schor to be led to a window on the first floor one after the other and demanded that they speak. The three hostages confirmed that they wanted to be flown to Cairo.
Issa then allowed Federal Minister of the Interior Genscher and the Mayor of the Olympic Village Walther Tröger to enter the house in order to speak with the hostages. They found the athletes sitting closely together and tied up in one of the bedrooms. Five hostages with submachine guns were watching them, which is why the crisis team assumed a five-person group from then on. Yossef Romano’s corpse lay under a sheet. The medical team had previously been able to recover the body of Moshe Weinberg. Clearly fearing for their lives, the hostages repeated that they agreed to be flown to Cairo.
among the crisis team
Genscher and Tröger left the building and spoke with police president Manfred Schreiber about how to proceed. They agreed that the hostage takers’ demand could not be met. As a sovereign state, the Federal Republic of Germany could not tolerate that the hostage-takers could take foreign guests to a foreign territory. Moreover, none of the Arab states had accommodated the diplomatic efforts of German Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt. They did not want to be involved in the situation. The crisis team intensively discussed the various options to free the hostages by force.
Those responsible didn’t want to put the lives of police officers at risk by storming the apartment without being certain that they could free the hostages in that way. The people in charge decided from this point to pretend to the hostage-takers that they would be flown away with the Israeli athletes – it was only in this way that they were able to extend the ultimatum to 7 p.m. The forces were to overpower the hostage-takers in the basement of the Olympic Village on the way from the accommodation in Munich to the aeroplane which was allegedly ready to fly – the passenger airport in Riem and the military airfield in Fürstenfeldbruck were under consideration.
Arguments for armed intervention
The later leader of the team in Fürstenfeldbruck, Georg Wolf, spoke to the crisis team in favour of freeing the hostages at the airport in Fürstenfeldbruck: this location was appealing because the police could get there before the hostage-takers and prepare the operation. Moreover, this was a military airport which could be easily cleared and where no external parties who would be at risk from a shoot out could get in. In Wolf’s estimation, the site also had suitable cover options and good positions for police snipers. The plan anticipated that the hostage-takers and hostages would be brought to Fürstenfeldbruck in helicopters and land at a distance from the aeroplane to provide an opportunity to intervene during the transfer. However, the operation in Fürstenfeldbruck was only intended to be an alternative to the operation in the Olympic Village, as it put the helicopter pilots at risk as well as the hostages.
Preparing the operation in Fürstenfeldbruck
From 6 p.m. Wolf and his officers prepared for a possible operation at Fürstenfeldbruck. As an intervention in Fürstenfeldbruck was only considered as a last option for freeing the hostages, only five police snipers were planned. They had performed well in shooting exercises before but they were not specifically trained for such an operation. Together with the German Armed Forces, Wolf and his officers determined the landing place for the helicopters in such a way that the hostage-takers would have to walk a distance of 100 meters to reach the allegedly flight-ready aeroplane.
This should provide the police snipers with the opportunity to shoot the hostage-takers on the way to the aeroplane. The five snipers were positioned in different locations on the airfield: three on the roof of the tower, one north of the helicopter behind the so-called signal garden, a small, walled rectangle and a final one behind the police vehicle on the airfield. They were equipped with rapid fire rifles with telescopic sights. Unlike in Munich, radio devices were not available, so that the operation leaders could only communicate with the snipers on the tower, but not with the two snipers on the airfield.
"Behind the cover provided by the balustrade of the tower platform, gunner 3, who was to be supported by an observer, was posted with a field of fire to the east, gunner 4 with a field of fire to the northeast, and gunner 5 at the northeast corner of the platform with a field of fire to the east but the possibility of firing in a northerly direction as well. Gunner 1 was assigned his position with an observer behind a fire truck inconspicuously staged for this purpose on the grassy area beyond the tarmac northeast of the tower at the level of the switching garden, with a field of fire in all directions. Gunner 2 was posted behind the concrete surround of the switching garden with field of fire to the southeast."
The operation plan for Fürstenfeldbruck
Wolf-s plan anticipated shooting as many hostage-takers as possible before they could reach the aeroplane. As the head of the operation, he was with the three snipers on the tower who were to open fire on his command. As there was no radio connection to the two snipers on the airfield, they were only to intervene after the first shots had been fired from the tower. The shooting field was illuminated with light towers, which were intended to increase the target certainty for the snipers and also dazzle the hostage-takers. Police, who were disguised as flight personnel, were to wait in the aeroplane. However, they were only poorly equipped with hardly any protection inside the aeroplane: a suicide squad. A group of one hundred police on standby were also ordered to the airport as reinforcements.
Before the hostage-takers and hostages arrived, all the lighting on the airfield was to be switched off, except the light towers, so that the police snipers could not be seen. After making the preparations in Fürstenfeldbruck, Wolf and the snipers flew back to the Olympic Village: all the precision snipers in the police were to be ready for the planned basement operation.
Israeli security experts arrive in the Olympic Village
Meanwhile, in Munich, negotiations with the hostage takers continued. Two security experts from Israel had also arrived in the Olympic Village: Zvi Zamir from the foreign secret service and Viktor Cohen, an agent from the Israeli domestic secret service. The crisis team rejected including the two Israeli experts in the preparations to free the hostages.
"My presence was annoying to them [...] They were uncomfortable that I had come at all. Their disapproval was so strong that they actually tried to keep us away from the Olympic Village and were unwilling to talk to us. [...] I remember to this day the answer of the police chief [...] It still rings in my ears. He said, 'Here's what we're going to do: We'll take them to the airport, and everything is prepared there for the release of the hostages.' As I understood him, they already had a complete plan. I thought a miracle was happening. They have a plan. They are making preparations. They have snipers. The prestige of West Germany preceded them. This was not a developing country, after all. We took courage."
The failure of the plan to free the hostages in the Olympic Village
At the same time as the preparations were underway in Fürstenfeldbruck, the planned operation in the basement of the Olympic Village had also begun. Two helicopters had landed outside the Village which were intended to take the hostage-takers and hostages to the airport in Fürstenfeldbruck. The plan was that the group with the hostages should walk through the basement of the Olympic Village to reach the helicopters. Heavily armed police were positioned at suitable points in the basement in order to free the hostages on the way.
At about 8:30 p.m. Issa demanded a test run to check the path from Connollystraße 31 to the helicopters. He became suspicious during this and subsequently demanded that the journey from Munich to Fürstenfeldbruck would be made by bus. Those responsible in Munich did not want to meet this demand, as the entire journey could not be sufficiently secured. The crisis team and the hostage-takers finally agreed to take the group to the helicopters by bus. The plan to free the hostages in the basement of the Olympic Village had therefore failed.
The final ultimatum
The helicopters were meant to bring the hostage takers and hostages to the waiting aeroplane in Fürstenfeldbruck. The members of the crisis team tried one last time to win some time. They said that there was not yet an aeroplane available for the flight to Cairo. This enabled them to extend the ultimatum to 9 p.m. but that extension once again passed. At 9:36 p.m. the Lufthansa aeroplane was ready at the Fürstenfeldbruck airport. Wolf then flew back to Fürstenfeldbruck with his five police snipers at 9:43 p.m.
The transport of the hostage-takers and hostages to Fürstenfeldbruck
At 10:06 p.m. the heavily armed hostage-takers led the tied up hostages to the bus provided which would take them to the helicopters. After a quick inspection of both helicopters, Issa demanded the athletes sit inside. Four hostage-takers sat with each group of hostages.
"Our helplessness awakened evil memories in us [...] The Israelis were completely defenseless, like lambs led to the slaughter."
It was only when they got into the helicopters that police president Schreiber was able to determine the precise number of hostage-takers. Until then, they had assumed it was five; in fact it was eight men. However, Schreiber did not pass this information on to Fürstenfeldbruck. He assumed that the head of operations there already had this information.
The cancellation of the operation in the aeroplane
The first helicopter to land in Fürstenfeldbruck contained the members and consultants for the crisis team and the two Israeli security experts. A short time later, Wolf saw from the tower that the police disguised as flight personnel left the Lufthansa aeroplane. The police officers abandoned their operation due to a lack of safety precautions. Wolf could no longer adjust the plan: the two helicopters with the hostage-takers and hostages were already approching Fürstenfeldbruck.
The helicopters land in Fürstenfeldbruck
The four pilots alighted first. As previously discussed with the head of the operation, they pushed open the doors to the passenger spaces in which the hostage-takers and hostages were sitting. The operation plan intended that the pilots should then head off in a northwards direction, so as not to come under fire. But the two armed hostage-takers had already alighted and prevented them from leaving.
At the same time, the head of the operation Wolf lay on the roof of the tower. At this point, he was still unaware of how many hostage-takers there actually were. Moreover, the rotary blades of the helicopters cast large shadows in which the hostage-takers could hide. This important detail was not considered when the operation was planned in daylight. The initial situation for successfully freeing the hostages could hardly have been worse.
After the landing
While two of the hostage takers threatened the pilots with guns, the leader, Issa, made his way to the aeroplane immediately after landing, so as to inspect it. Tony, the second leader, followed him at a distance. Wolf made the decision to first free the four pilots from the dangerous situation. So two police snipers took position on the north balustrade of the tower and set both hostage-takers threatening the pilots in their sights. Only after their shots was the third sniper on the tower to open fire on Issa and Tony. However, the open fire command was delayed as the pilots were in the middle of the field of fire. Meanwhile, the two leaders had arrived at the aeroplane. When they saw that there were no personnel on board, they recognised the trap and immediately ran back to the helicopters.
The first shots
Only when Issa and Tony had almost reached to the helicopter to the east were the shots fired by the police snipers, almost simultaneously, at the two hostage-takers who were threatening the pilots. Both fell to the ground hit, without any chance to fire their weapons. The pilots tried to get to safety. One of them fled behind the low walls of the signal garden, where he met the police sniper positioned there. The third sniper on the tower had already had Issa and Tony in his sights and had waited for the first shot. However, when it came to open fire he could no longer hit the two from his position.
The two snipers on the tower who had already shot at the hostage-takers repositioned themselves and now targeted Issa and Tony. Although Issa was hit in the leg, he was able to hide together with Tony in the rotary blade shadow to the east of the helicopter and from there fire at the top part of the tower. The two snipers positioned on the airfield could hardly take part in the exchange of gun fire due to their positions to the east and north of the helicopters. One of the hostage-takers had lain down behind the back of the helicopter to the west when firing began and acted dead until his arrest.
The death of policeman Anton Fliegerbauer
Over the following hours shots were fired again and again. Police president Schreiber instructed Anton Fliegerbauer and two further colleagues to support the snipers on the airfield. As Anton Fliegerbauer left the tower building, he was hit by a shot from a hostage-taker. He died on the spot.
Wolf did not consider freeing the possibly still living hostages to be reasonable due to the risk to the police officers’ lives. He decided to attempt another attack when the tank requested from the Olympic Village arrived. But this was only ordered to come to Fürstenfeldbruck ten minutes after the first shots were taken. Onlookers came to the site of the event in their droves and impeded the traffic.
The Israeli security expert Cohen took up a megaphone in the meantime and spoke to the members of ‘Black September’ in Arabic: “Give yourselves up, save your lives.” The response was a hail of bullets.
The false report
Shortly after 11 p.m. the rumour spread among the onlookers who had gathered in front of the gates of the airport that all the hostages had been freed. The news spread to the Olympic Village in Munich. The source of this false report remains unknown to this day. The international news agency Reuters sent an exclusive urgent report at 11:31 p.m. stating “All Israeli hostages have been freed.” The Deutsche Presseagentur (dpa) took up the report.
At around midnight, Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt sent his speaker Conrad Ahlers to the waiting journalists. Ahlers declared to the US television broadcaster ABC that he was very happy that the police operation, as far as was known at that time, had been successful. The apparent good news spread around the globe like wildfire and reached the ears of the hostages’ relatives. It was completely without justification.
dpa 311 1d araber
drei terroristen erschossen
muenchen, 5.September 72 dpa - bei der schiesserei auf dem flugplatz fuerstenfeldbruck sind nach angaben der polizei drei der arabischen terroristen erschossen worden. einer beging selbstmord. ein weiterer terrorist konnte entkommen. alle geiseln leben, hiess es.
dpa 311 js/mw 05.sep 72 2357
Six tanks from Munich only arrived at around 11:50 p.m. They were meant to recover the injured and provide protection for a police team to approach the helicopters. Shots were fired at Wolf from the two helicopters as he drove towards them in a tank. A hostage-taker also threw a hand grenade into the helicopter to the east and tried to flee towards the signal garden. He was shot by the police sniper positioned there. The grenade detonated and set the helicopter on fire. David Berger died from smoke poisoning in the helicopter. The other eight hostages had already been shot by the hostage-takers previously: Yossef Gutfreund, Kehat Schor, Mark Slavin, Andrei Spitzer and Amitzur Shapira died in the helicopter to the west; Yakov Springer, Eliezer Halfin, Ze’ev Friedman and David Berger in the one to the east.
Further tanks drove onto the airfield. The arriving police officers did not understand the unclear situation and shot at the sniper and the helicopter pilot in the signal garden, who they though were hostage-takers – both were injured. Five hostage-takers, including the two leaders Issa and Tony, had been shot by the police in the meantime. Three hostage-takers survived the exchange of fire. They acted dead and were arrested by the police.
Barely 90 minutes had passed since the helicopters had landed in Fürstenfeldbruck. The operation had failed: none of the hostages could be saved.
The terrible truth
At 3:17 a.m. Reuters released the corrected urgent report: ‘All the Israeli hostages captured by the Arab guerrillas captured are dead.’
The US reporter Jim McKay sent the devastating news around the world at 3:24 a.m.
Authors: Dominik Aufleger, Anna Greithanner, Robert Wolff