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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Under the Nose of the British: Machon Aylon©

By Vardah Littmann

About four years ago a group of orthodox senior citizens from Bnei Brak, arrived to tour the Ayalon Institute on Kibbutz Hill in Rechovot. One woman seemed to be exceptionally moved by the place and cried a lot. Nearly two weeks later, she sent a letter to explain why she had been so emotional.

This woman wrote that she was a Holocaust survivor. During the Second World War, between 1943 until 1945, she had been a forced laborer making bullets to help the Nazi cause, bullets which were being used to kill Jews. After the war, she had concentrated on raising a new frum generation, suppressing all the terror of those horrendous years in order to do so.

On arriving at Machon Aylon, her memories overwhelmed her. It was tremendously moving for her to learn that Jews at Machon Aylon had also done what she had been forced to do. The difference was they had done it willingly with great self-sacrifice to help save other Jews.

This knowledge of the bullet factory created to arm Jewish defense forces acted like a “counter-weight” against her slavery under the Nazis. She had no doubt that the efforts of the Haganah members who worked at Machon Ayalon under harsh conditions played a crucial role in the success of the War of Independence. Their altruism had helped, with the help of HaShem, to protect the vastly outnumbered Sherit Haplatah from the five Arab armies who attacked them with the intention of carrying out another Holocaust.

Ammunition for the Haganah

England became the mandatory ruler of Palestine in December of 1917. Despite the Belfour Declaration, right from the start, the British discriminated against the Jews of the Land and as time progressed, it only got worse. Esav being the mechutan of Yishmael, the English many times turned a blind eye to Arab violence against Jews. In addition, they forbade Jews from owning arms. Carrying and possessing weapons carried a death penalty. Therefore, there arose Jewish underground groups to defend the population of the Land and kick the British out.

During the Second World War, the Haganah, the largest of these Jewish underground movements, decided that as long as there was a common enemy in the form of the Nazis, they would join the British to fight Germany. Thirty thousand young Jews joined the English army to help the British war campaign. After the defeat of the German army at El Alamein, in the deserts of North Africa, these 30,000 youngsters returned home. Almost all of them now had a personal weapon - a British standard sub-machine gun.

At that stage, the Haganah already had underground ammunition producing factories. Their engineers had been trying to reproduce German machine guns. The trouble was that the German weaponry was very complicated. When they examined the British stand-sub-machine gun, they saw they could easily be duplicated. They started producing them by the hundreds. Now they needed bullets to use with these guns.

The Clandestine Bullet Factory in Givat Kibbutzim

The Haganah decided to build a clandestine bullet factory. Using the strategy that the best place to hide something from someone is to conceal it right under that person’s nose, they built the plant on the summit of a hill near to where the English were encamped, at Givat Kibbutzim located between Nes Ziona and Rechovot

Originally, from 1932-1942 groups of young people (garinim) had come to Givat Kibbutzim to train and gain experience in the ways of daily life on a kibbutz. They had then gone on to establish kibbutzim throughout the country.

From 1946, Givat Kibbutzim code-named the Ayalon Institute, appeared to be no more than a regular kibbutz. There was a dining hall, living quarters, chicken coops, a cow barn, workshops, a laundry, a bakery, a vegetable garden, and even a nursery school.

Yet beneath the limestone hill of Givat Kibbutzim was the largest bullet factory in the Land. From 1946 until 1948, forty-five people worked there in two shifts, manufacturing 2.25 million bullets. At the height of operations, 40,000 bullets were made a day. These nine-millimeter bullets were used in the Sten sub-machine gun, which was the primary personal weapon during the War of Independence. Each bullet was imprinted with the letters EA, E for Eretz Yisrael and A for Ayalon.

The kibbutz was constantly watched and often visited by Mandate soldiers. One time, a group of British soldiers came to the kibbutz and were given beer to drink. They complained that the beer was warm and fizzy. The kibbutz members apologized profusely saying that if the soldiers would give them advance notice of their visits, they would be sure the beer would be properly chilled when they arrived. The British happily agreed. Thus, each time the soldiers came to inspect the kibbutz, its members knew to be prepared for them.

Even some members of the kibbutz were not informed of the factory’s existence. Sometimes one mate of a couple did not know the other mate was part of the enterprise. Those in the “dark” were referred to as “Giraffes.” The reason this name was used was that a giraffe’s long neck makes its head way above the earth so it is oblivious to what is happening on the ground and certainty underneath the ground. So too, these people lacked knowledge of the secret underground activities. Only after they were considered trustworthy, were they informed of the bullet operation.

The Noisy Washing Machine

The industrial unit built 25 feet below ground took three weeks (22 days) to dig out. The underground chamber has walls and ceilings two feet thick.
The concealment of the factory and the tremendous noise it made was nothing less then ingenious.  Above ground on one end was a laundry room. The large, newest state-of-the-art washing machine (of that era) revolved on a pivot revealing the entrance stairs. The workers took less than three minutes to go in and out of the factory. The racket made by the washing machine drowned out the noise coming from the bullet manufacturing below.

But, how much washing does one kibbutz have? To ensure there was enough laundry to keep the machine washing 24 hours a day, a commercial drycleaner shop was opened in Rechovot. The maternity faculty in the city brought their dirty diapers to this shop. The laundry acquired for itself the name of a superb cleaner.

Even British officials stationed in the area wanted their uniforms to be laundered in the kibbutz. To keep the soldiers away, the kibbutz members provided a pick up and delivery service to their enemies. The Brits never dreamed that the whole place was a cover-up that concealed a secret arms factory.

Then on the other side, there was a bakery. The huge 10-ton baking oven covered the shaft into which the necessary manufacturing machines had been lowered into the factory. In 1938, these twelve machines, (that had been used to make ammunition for World War One from 1914 until 1918), were purchased in Poland. However, on the way to Palestine they had been held up in Beirut for nearly four years. Jews serving in the British army succeeded in bringing them to Palestine.

In 1985 when Machon Aylon was renovated into a museum, nine of the machines were returned to this site. The remaining three machines are still being used to make bullets today. It’s a testimony to the fact that things were once manufactured to last long periods of time.
In addition, the laundry was built directly over the factory to provide camouflage for the large chimney discharging some of the polluted air from below. In the bakery, attached to the furnace were pipes though which clean air was pumped into the factory at a rate of eight times an hour. Even nowadays, pumping in clean air one and a half times per hour is considered a prime ventilation system.
An Ingenious Operation
The raw copper needed to manufacture the bullets was obtained from a makeup factory. The importing authorities asked the owner why he needed so much of the stuff. He replied that women in Palestine use a lot of makeup and he needed to manufacture many kosher lipstick and powder cases to fill their needs. The explanation proved plausible, especially as it was reinforced by gifts of lipstick and powder cases to British officials. Large import licenses were approved.
The products had to be up to par. Sample bullets chosen at random were shot in the factory at targets to check for accuracy and precision.
After the ammunition was produced, a way had to be found to smuggle it to the fighters. At first, the bullets were put in milk cans with a double wall. These proved too heavy. Later, secret compartments built in fuel trucks concealed them. Since the British did not expect explosive gunpowder-filled objects to be hidden in fuel trucks, the bullets were able to be distributed around the country without detection.
As the workers were underground so long, it was quickly realized that they would look suspiciously pale from being out of the sun. The doctor who was brought in advised them to use a special sun lamp to tan the workers’ skin. They were also given extra portions of foods rich in Vitamin D.

The work was difficult. The place was dark, dusty, and claustrophobic. The penalty for engaging in such illegal activities during the Mandate period was death. The danger was great to the workers themselves and to their families. To make sure they had no traces of their work on them, such as copper shavings or gunpowder, a thorough inspection of their clothes, hair and shoes was made each day before they exited the factory. Many times copper shavings had to be scraped off the bottoms of their shoes.

There was also a risk of the bullets exploding and killing them all, including their little children in the nursery school above ground.
Yet these young people readily put their lives on the line. Before they had been conscripted to work in the bullet-factory, they had been on the verge of creating a new settlement. Nevertheless, they agreed most readily to the Haganah’s plan and at great personal sacrifice, they started producing bullets for three long years.

After the establishment of the State, the pioneer group from the Ayalon Institute decided to stay together, and they established a new kibbutz, Ma'agan Micha'el, by the sea near Zichron Yaakov in 1949.

The Machon Aylon military industry factory of the pre-state days went on to become IMI (Israel Military Industries) or "TAAS." Though Machon Aylon ceased operating in 1948, its existence was only revealed to the public in 1975. In 1985, the factory was restored and turned into a museum.

A version of this article first appeared in THE JEWISH PRESS.

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