There was lax security at the athletes village in Munich where the 1972 Olympic Games were being held. The event was significant as the infamous 1936 Olympics had been an orgy of Nazi triumphalism, a memory that the new modern democratic West Germany sought to put behind it. This optimistic attitude influenced the easy going approach of the organisers and the informal atmosphere in the village campus.
Athletes who were out into the early morning celebrating their victories during the previous week of the games were in the habit of climbing over the fence so at 4.30 on the morning of 5th September 1972, the presence of eight men in tracksuits doing just that raised no suspicions. However the eight men were a team of Palestinian fanatics who were members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation group known as "Black September" from refuge camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan who carried their automatic rifles, pistols and grenades concealed in their duffel bags. When they climbed the fence the terrorists were actually assisted by unsuspecting Canadian athletes.
The terrorists stole the keys for the Israeli Olympic apartments and donning masks they entered brandishing their weapons. During the struggle that followed two of the Israelis, Moshe Weinberg, a wrestling coach and Yossef Romano, a weightlifter and 1967 Six Day war veteran were shot dead by the terrorists while two others, Tuvia Sokolovsky and Gad Tsobari, escaped. One of the terrorists had been knocked unconcious while two others had been wounded. Nine Israelis were subdued and tied up by the terrorists while the remaining athletes and coaches managed to hide and escape or were in other parts of the village campus.
Marxist terrorists - Meinhof (left) and Baader (right. The Black September terrorists demanded their release along with the release of 234 of their Palestinian comrades.
The terrorists sought the release of 234 of their comrades imprisoned in Israel and the release of the German Marxist terrorists Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof who were co-founders of the Red Army Faction or RAF. The hostage situation that now developed was a public relations disaster for the West German government because victims were Jewish and citizens of Israel. The Israeli policy was absolute - no negotiation - and the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Golda Meir claimed they offered to send an elite commando unit to effect the rescue but the offer which was allegedly refused by the government of Chancellor Willy Brandt. Subsequently the West Germans denied this offer ever occurred.
Attempts by the West Germans to pay the terrorists to release their captives were met with the response: "Money means nothing to us; our lives mean nothing to us." Egyptian advisors to Arab League and an Egyptian member of the IOC were allowed to try to persuade the terrorists to release their prisoners but also met with failure. Bizarrely normal life continued in the rest of the Olympic village and the games were temporarily suspended. As international news cameras were focused on the balcony of the apartment, armed German police moved into position but the terrorists who could clearly see them on television demanded they withdraw or the hostages would be murdered.
To prove the hostages were still alive two of them were allowed to speak with German officals from the balcony at gunpoint. The West German Minister for the Interior Hans-Dietrich Genscher and the Mayor of the Olympic village Walter Tröger were allowed inside to speak with the hostages and were under mistaken impression that there were only 5 terrorists. Not long after the visit the terrorists demanded to be flown to Cairo. The West German government pretended to agree although Egyptian Prime Minister Aziz Sedki said his country refused to become involved.
Just after 10 pm a bus took the terrorists and their hostages from the apartment building to two helicopters that flew them to the NATO airbase at Fürstenfeldbruck were a jet was apparently waiting to take them to Cairo.
However it was all an elaborate ruse. At Fürstenfeldbruck, five West German snipers were deployed but crucially none of them had specialist training. The crew of the waiting Boeing 727 airliner were also armed West German police.
Things were already going wrong as the terrorists and hostages were being transfered by bus and helicopter when the authorities learned there in were fact eight rather than five Palestinians. The "crew" of the plane who had been tasked with allowing two of the terrorists to check out the plane before suprising them and arresting them while the snipers took out the remainder of the gang. With more terrorists than they had planned for the West German poorly executed operation was beginning to unravel be it could be executed.
In their haste the men aboard the 727 decided to scrap their plan and left leaving five snipers against eight heavily armed terrorists when the helicopters landed at the airbase at 10.30. The four helicopter pilots were held at gunpoint by four of the terrorists as two terrorists approached the plane. The two remaining terrorists remained aboard the helicopters covering their hostages. The two Palestinians found the 727 empty and when the penny dropped they ran back to warn their comrades.
At around 11.00 pm all hell broke lose as the snipers opened fire in the poor light, hitting one of the running men in the thigh and missing the second. Two of the other Palestinians holding the pilots at gun point were shot and killed. The remaining terrorists began shooting out the airport lights and Anton Fliegerbauer, a German policeman in the control tower was shot dead. The pilots of the helicopters fled leaving the Israeli athletes tied up and secured in their seatbelts at the mercy of the terrorists.
The battle continued until 12.00 when armoured personnel carriers were deployed and the panicked terrorists decided enough was enough. Four of the hostages were murdered at point blank range with a bursts of AK-47 fire as they sat helpless in the rear seat of one of helicopter before a grenade was hurled inside. The aircraft exploded in flames and burned their bodies beyond recognition. The killer then dashed forward firing his gun at the police and was shot down. Another terrorist tried to run and was also killed by a sniper. Another terrorist gunned down the remaining five Israelis aboard the second helicopter who were also tied up and strapped in the rear seat. Three of the remaining terrorist pretended to be dead and lay on the ground where they were subsequently captured. The last of the terrorists fled to a car lot and was cornered 40 minutes later. The police at tried to use tear gas to subdue him but after another exchange of gunfire he was shot and killed bringing the firefight to an end at 1.30 am on the morning of 6th September.
The charred wreckage of one of the helicopters destroyed by a hand grenade after four Israeli hotages were murdered inside it by a hail of terrorist gunfire.
News reports of the gunfight at the airbase were at first optimistic and the international audiences were led to believe all the terrorists were dead and all the hostages had been rescue alive. However at 3:24 a.m a grave Jim McKay announce the terrible news of the murders of the Israeli hostages on ABC television:
"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."
The West Germans came under severe criticism for the fiasco. The snipers had no training for operations of the type they undertook, wore no helmets or body armour and were armed with standard automatic rifles which were not suited for an operation that required specialist sniper rifles with scopes and infrared sights that would have ensured greater accuracy. In fact one of the snipers was in the line of fire of a comrade who wounded him not aware he was shooting at one of his own. One of the pilots was also shot and wounded. None of the "crew" of the airliner who had been tasked with capturing the two terrorists who inspected the plane were ever disciplined for their actions which triggered the botched rescue. In the wake of the disaster European governments and other governments around the world established dedicated counter terrorism units or else special forces units like the SAS took over this role in future.
It was revealed years later that the West Germans may have received information weeks before the hostage crisis and the murders of the Israeli athletes than a Palestinian plot was afoot but inadequate security measures were taken.
The bodies of the five dead Palestinian murderers were flown to Libya and buried with full military honors while on 8th September Israeli jets bombed ten PLO camps in both Syria and Lebanon killing about 200. In October of the same year, a Lufthansa flight was hijacked and the terrorists demanded the release of the three surviving murderers of the Israeli athletes held in West Germany. The West German government gave into their demands and Jamal Al-Gashey, Adnan Al-Gashey, and Mohammed Safady were released. In Libya they were greeted as heroes rather than murderers and held a press conference where they boasted and gloated about the killings of their helpless victims. It was alleged they were later killed by Mossad but this has been disputed.
80,000 people plus 3,000 athletes attended a memorial service in the Olympic stadium during which Carmel Eliash, a cousin of one of the eleven dead athletes died of a heart attack. The Olympic flag and the flags of the participating nations flew at half-mast but 10 Arab nations objected that their flags would fly at half mast for sake of murdered Jews so they were immediately raised again. It was decided that games would continue in defiance of the terrorists and the murders of the athletes a decision supported by the Israeli government although the remaining Israeli athletes returned home as did a number of other national teams and a number of other individual athletes. At the 1976 Olympics the Israeli team adorned their national flag with black ribbon.
In the years that followed Mossad launched Operation Wrath Of God whereby they tracked down and killed as many of the Palestinian responsible for the Munich massacre as they possibly could. Teams of assassins received the assistance of some friendly governments where members of the Palestinian terrorist network in exile resided. Other governments decided to look the other way rather than get involved. The Palestinian targets were mostly shot but also killed by explosives including one man who was blown up by a bomb planted ingeniously inside a telephone. In 1973 an audacious Israel commando raid in Beiruit, Lebanon led by future Israeli Prime Minister Edud Barak resulted in the deaths of three key Palestinian terrorist leaders. The headquarters of the PFLP was also blown up. However the same year five Mossad agents were captured in Lillehammer, Norway after they killed an innocent man mistaken for their correct target. In another incident an Israeli assassin was himself shot and killed after being seduced in a "honey trap" by a female Dutch assassin hired by the Palestinians. The female assassin was herself subsequently tracked down and shot by Mossad.
More than 20 years after the events of 1972 the full extent of the German botched cover up was finally revealed to relatives of the murdered athletes and it was only in 2004 that a financial settlement was finally agreed. It was also discovered that to avoid further attacks on West German soil, the West German government met with figures from Black September and other Palestinian terrorist groups and agreed to give the PLO political status. As a result when Abu Daoud, who played a leading role in the massacre in Munich was apprehended by the French, the West German government declined having him extradited for trial. Daoud was sheltered by the Assad regime until his death in Damascus in 2010.
Abu Daoud, one of the masterminds of the Munich massacre.
The innocent Israeli victims murdered by Black September were:
Moshe Weinberg (wrestling coach)
Yossef Romano (weightlifter)
Ze'ev Friedman (weightlifter)
David Berger (weightlifter)
Yakov Springer (weightlifting judge)
Eliezer Halfin (wrestler)
Yossef Gutfreund (wrestling referee)
Kehat Shorr (shooting coach)
Mark Slavin (wrestler)
Andre Spitzer (fencing coach)
Amitzur Shapira (track coach)
The West German police officer who gave his life in the rescue operation was Anton Fliegerbauer.