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Hiding in plain sight – the secret facility that helped win Israeli independence

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A must-see location to visit in Israel is Ayalon Institute on Kibbutzim Hill. Senior Haganah commander Yosef Avidar determined its location, just north of the city of Rehovot, due to its proximity to Tel Aviv and the slope of its hillside. On the surface this fully functioning kibbutz was replete with housing, a dining hall, vegetable garden and facilities for chickens and cows, as well as workshops, a bakery and a laundry. The cooperative, superficially, was built to train pioneers so they could establish cooperatives around the country. However, 13 feet below the surface of this kibbutz, 45 people worked in two shifts around the clock in a 300 square yard chamber surrounded with two-foot thick walls, illegally producing ammunition critical to Israel’s survival and involved the beginnings of Israel’s pioneer military forces – the Palmach, Haganah and Hatzofim.

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Before it became a state, in 1945, underground Haganah military leaders realized the need to defend themselves against the Arabs once the British Mandate left. Other underground factories churned out Sten submachine guns, which were not terribly difficult to make, however, the military factions had a hard time obtaining the nine millimeter bullets required. As a result, the head of the clandestine early Israel Military Industry at the time conspired to smuggle machines from Poland. This was not an easy task as, in 1938, they could not get them past Beirut, Lebanon, for a four year period. Jews who served in the British army finally transported the machinery necessary to make these bullets to Palestine. Although the kibbutz was closely watched by British soldiers, upon arrival, the machinery was installed through a several ton laundry machine set on a set of metal rollers in the laundry area.

Built in just 22 days, virtually under the noses of the British who controlled the area at the time, the ammunition factory was constructed underneath kibbutz land a short distance from a camp housing British officials, who also used the laundry to clean and press their uniforms. The kibbutz even provided pickup and delivery service to its enemies, to help them keep their secret as they provided a perceived value-added service.

The laundry was built directly above the factory, along with the bakery. The laundry machine camouflaged the sounds of the bullet-making machinery and its pipes discharged some of its polluted air, while the bakery furnace provided clean air pipes as well as masked the odors emitted from the factory. The bakery included a 10-ton baking oven which covered an additional entrance.

Several decoy tactics were employed to ensure the secrecy of this, the largest underground factory of its kind.

  • One of the components necessary to make the bullets was copper. Since this was an item they had to apply for a permit to secure this imported commodity, they explained they needed an excessive amount in order to create cases for Kosher lipstick. Gifts to British officials included these lipstick cases and beer.
  • On occasion, upon visiting the kibbutz, British soldiers would be given beers, but they were warm. The members of the kibbutz told them that if they were given notification of their visits in advance, they would ensure the beers were properly chilled. Therefore, this ensured that those on kibbutz could prepare for their visits.
  • As everyone on the kibbutz was supposed to be working in the fields during the day, as well as take their meals together, those involved in the ammunition ruse realized they had to look like they had participated. To do this, they secured a physician to help them by coming up with a type of sun lamp that tanned them. It was the first Israeli sun-tanning booth of sorts.
  • The factory produced more than 40,000 bullets daily at its peak. However, they needed to be transported safely. To avoid detection, the more than two million nine millimeter bullets created between 1946 and 1948 were first shipped in milk cartons; after they were deemed too heavy, they were transported to the necessary locations in secret compartments of fuel trucks to avoid detection. All the while, only a select few were aware of the existence of the Ayalon Institute.

This operation was not without great risk to those special individuals involved. Most on the kibbutz had no knowledge of its existence; the penalty for this kind of offense was death at the hands of the British, so the need for secrecy was paramount.

In the end, the significance of this Ayalon Institute was that it was instrumental in transforming the Haganah into the Israel Defense Forces as well as creating a quality arms industry capable of helping Israel secure and maintain its independence.

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