David Lawrence-Young – The Machon Ayalon/Ayalon Institute
The Israeli army – Zahal – is known and respected today as one of the world’s best fighting forces. The Israeli air-force has the F.35, the navy has its missile boats and submarines and the army has its Israeli-made Merhava tank and Galil and Tavor assault rifles. Although the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) now use and also manufacture some of the most sophisticated weapons ever produced, this wasn’t always so. During the years leading up to the founding of the state in 1948, and afterwards during the 1948-49 War of Independence, Israel had to either smuggle in its weapons from abroad, such as ex-WW2 fighter aircraft from Czechoslovakia or make them at home. This last venture was just as risky as smuggling in weapons from abroad. If the British Mandate authorities discovered these illegal factories, then those involved could be tried and face long terms in prison.
One of the most dramatic examples of these illegal factories was situated just north of Rehovot, a small town twelve miles south of Tel-Aviv. This town was better known seventy years ago for its orange tree orchards and the Weizmann Institute of Science. What was less well-known was the fact that north of the town on a small hill known as Kibbutzim Hill and built underground right under the Mandatory army’s nose was an illegal arms factory. This factory’s sole job was to make bullets for the Haganah, pre-state’s semi-legal army.
In 1938 bullet producing machines were purchased in Poland, and via a long and tortuous route via Beirut, were smuggled into Mandatory Palestine. These machines were set up in the codenamed ‘Ayalon Institute’ which was in fact a Haganah factory. This secret factory was built thirteen feet underground and occupied an area of three hundred square yards. To fool the British, the factory had two entrances which were camouflaged by having a laundry at one end and a bakery at the other. These two small ‘industries’ were chosen so that their noise and smell would disguise the noise and smell that were caused by the making of the bullets below them.
As part of the disguise, the area above the factory was laid out as a real operating kibbutz, complete with living quarters, a communal dining-room, cow-sheds, a chicken coop as well as regular workshops and vegetable gardens. The forty-five members who made the bullets lived here and were sworn to secrecy about what they were doing. They were not even allowed to tell the other members of their families, and everyone who didn’t work in the illegal factory was nicknamed by the workers a ‘giraffe.’
Working for ten hours a day non-stop was very tough. The noise of the heavy machines, the badly ventilated premises and the lack of sunlight all played their part in affecting the health of the workers. Major efforts were made to overcome these problems, such as sun-ray lamps were installed etc. However, despite all of the above, during the factory’s three year subterranean existence from 1945-48, there was only one accident. One day, one of the workers, nicknamed the Mohel, accidentally chopped off part of his finger while trimming a bullet casing. According to the story circulating then, he was distracted while carrying out his precision task by looking at one of the girls working nearby instead of concentrating on his bullet! All in all, the factory produced five million (!) nine millimeter bullets for the Haganah’s ‘Sten’ submachine guns. Samples of the bullets were tested daily in the factory’s underground rifle-range and there were no reports of any ‘duds.’
As for the above-ground bakery and the laundry, they also continued to do well. In fact, the laundry was so successful, that not only did it wash the kibbutz members’ own clothes, but it was also used by the occupying forces of the British army to launder its uniforms as well!
Today you can visit this fascinating and historic site. The hour-long tour starts off with an explanatory film and then the guide takes you underground to see the actual factory itself.
All tours are guided either in English or Hebrew and the price is about $10 ($5 for Seniors). From personal experience I can say that it is worth every cent. The Ayalon Institute is open every Sunday-Thursday from 08.00-16.00 and on Fridays from 08.30-14.00. You can also visit on Shabbat and Hagim from 09.00-16.00.
Websites: eng.shimur.org/ayalon-institute & www.shimur.org/ayalon-institute
Have a great visit.