Unexpected Israel: Under their very noses

The Ayalon Institute tells a story of outstanding courage, ingenuity and audacity displayed by a group of young, dedicated pioneers.

THE ENTRANCE to the arms factory under a washing machine. (photo credit: RUTH CORMAN)
THE ENTRANCE to the arms factory under a washing machine.
(photo credit: RUTH CORMAN)
On a wooded hillside outside Rehovot lies a small museum – the Ayalon Institute, telling a story of outstanding courage, ingenuity and audacity displayed by a group of young, dedicated pioneers.
This dramatic tale begins in 1945 when the Jews, living under the British Mandate, anticipated the probability of fighting breaking out with the Arabs, if and when the British were to leave.
Leaders of the Hagana were deeply concerned about their ability to defend themselves.
They had produced 450 Sten submachine guns, but had hardly any ammunition.
Moreover, if Jews were found in possession of weapons, they faced imprisonment or even execution at the hands of the British.
How could they possibly find a way to manufacture desperately needed bullets in such circumstances? Their solution was so outrageous that had you seen it in a movie or read it in a novel, you would never have believed it possible. They decided to build what appeared to be a regular kibbutz, but 8 meters underneath it, they constructed a clandestine bullet factory, the length of a tennis court.
To undertake such an ambitious project, reliable volunteers had to be found who understood the need for absolute secrecy and who could adapt to the rigors of working underground. Many of those selected had arrived as refugees from Germany, Austria or Czechoslovakia after experiencing the horrors of Nazi Europe. They were eager to help their new country in its time of need. Most of them were younger than 20.
The kibbutz they built was composed of accommodation, a children’s house, dining room, laundry, bakery, chickens, gardens and agriculture. To passersby it was a simple farming community with nothing to indicate what lay beneath.
The factory took three weeks to excavate and cover with earth, and another two to dry out the underground rooms so that a ventilation system could be installed, with air being replaced eight times an hour.
The major concern was access – one entrance was required for workers to come and go and a second for use in emergencies and for lowering machinery. Camouflage was crucial. The first entrance, measuring a mere 56 by 65 centimeters, was hidden under a washing machine in the laundry. The second, 3 by 2 meters, was concealed under the 10-ton base of an oven in the bakery. Electricity and water were supplied courtesy of His Majesty’s Government by illegally connecting to the mains.
Work began at 7 a.m. daily. The first shift of 45 workers strolled through the kibbutz carrying farming tools as if heading for the fields. Instead, they entered the laundry. The washing machine was moved aside and, as if by magic, 45 people disappeared underground in less than 90 seconds.
It is impossible for us to fully appreciate their working conditions. They operated two 10-hour shifts whilst the noise of hammers and lathes made it impossible to hear or communicate. Some sang whilst working and others guessed, by lip-reading, what they were singing and joined in.
Meanwhile the washing machine pounded away upstairs to detract from this noise.
Inquisitive onlookers occasionally asked why the kibbutz washing machine worked non-stop. So to increase their official “work load,” a shop was opened nearby where locals brought their dirty linen. A maternity home in Rehovot used their services as did soldiers from the British military camp.
I watched a film interview with a veteran worker. “The British liked us because we did such an excellent job cleaning their uniforms.” Customers never collected their washing – it was always delivered to them to avoid their coming to the kibbutz.
British troops, however, carried out routine security checks. On one visit they were offered beer but complained that it was warm, so one bright kibbutznik suggested that if the soldiers notified them in advance of their next visit, beer on ice would await them. The soldiers agreed and this provided a perfect way of knowing when they would turn up.
Noise, whilst stressful at work, could sometimes be advantageous. A train carrying British troops passed close by several times a day. As it approached, the clatter from the train provided the perfect sound proofing for the workers testing bullets in the subterranean shooting range. When the train passed the shooting ceased until the next one came along.
However being underground for long hours caused health issues. The workers lacked fresh air and sunshine and were noticeably pale, unlike the usual nutbrown kibbutzniks. Accordingly, sun-ray lamps were installed to provide daily treatment and produce tanned complexions.
Diets were monitored to ensure the right food and vitamins.
After each shift, clothing had to be carefully inspected to ensure that no fragment of metal remained that could reveal what they were actually doing. Unusual wear and tear on shoes caused by metal shavings was noticed by the local shoe repairer, so they opened their own kibbutz shoe repair shop. Outsiders were discouraged from visiting the kibbutz by notices warning of foot and mouth disease – this ruse kept them away.
The group was constantly exposed to danger. Not only was there the possibility of discovery by the British, but, working in a closed underground area with gunpowder, there was the constant risk of explosions. They had to be scrupulously careful to avoid accidents. Miraculously, during the whole time that the factory operated there was not one single incident.
The Institute operated until 1948, and the establishment of the State of Israel. Its contribution to the success of the War of Independence was of major significance for, in three years the Institute produced 14,000 copper bullets a day, totaling over two and a half million. Incidentally the customs permit to import copper was obtained by telling the British authorities that it was to make lipstick cases, a fact confirmed by gifts of lipsticks to the British officers’ wives.
The Institute closed in 1949. The equipment was moved to Tel Aviv and the workers left and settled in Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael. It was only in 1975 that the Ayalon Institute was rediscovered and restored to its original working condition, becoming a national historical site in 1987.
I spent two fascinating hours there, seeing the kibbutz and the factory just as they had been when operational. I heard incredible stories about the workforce.
and was left with an abiding memory and great admiration for those who combined bravery, quick-thinking and imagination with a large dose of chutzpah.
What struck me especially was the matter of fact way that Shlomo Hillel, who had been the leader of the group and just 22 at the time, spoke of his experiences.
When asked why he had done what he did, he replied quite simply, “There was a job to be done so we got on with it.” If you were to suggest to him that he had been a hero he would have shrugged his shoulders and looked at you in great surprise.
I read somewhere that heroes have been described as “ordinary people who do extraordinary things.” Shlomo and his fellow bullet makers were without doubt heroes by anyone’s standards.
Ruth Corman, who lives both in London and Jerusalem, is an art consultant and photographer. Her next book, UNEXPECTED ISRAEL, should be published later this year.