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The Modesty and Valor of the Ayalon Institute

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...Less known is the modest operation carried out under unusually hard conditions - the first production of Jewish weapons in Eretz Israel. I doubt if there was a more heroic enterprise in the Yishuv, or any other operation involving such constant mortal danger, as the concealed and secret work of Ta'as, and I do not know which was greater, their modesty or their valor... ~ David Ben Gurion on Ta'as, 1953

[All quotes in this blog post are from "The Ayalon Institute: Kibbutzim Hill Rehovot" compiled and written by Eli Sa'adi and edited by Yehudit Ayalon. Thank you to Yehudit Ayalon for granting permission to use these quotes.]

The History of Ayalon Institute

Ayalon Institute sketch
Drawings for the Ayalon Institute showing the secret underground bullet-making factory and the laundry and bakery which hid the two entrances to the Institute. In 1945, the Ayalon Institute was built in 22 days. From 1945 - 1948, it produced over 2.25 million bullets which were used before and during Israel's War of Independence.

The Ayalon Institute was a dangerous top secret operation that took place from 1945 to 1948 that produced over 2.25 million bullets in a clandestine underground factory, built not far from the British who ruled the area. Passionate, dedicated, heroic, and selfless young men and woman just out of High School produced the bullets that were needed for the Sten sub-machine guns, which were used in Israel's War of Independence in 1948. The 300 sq. yard factory was built under a kibbutz and its sole purpose was to hide the work of the young people underground who risked their lives daily. A bakery was built above ground, as well as a chicken coop, a laundry, a dining hall, a vegetable garden, workshops, and a barn - all to give the appearance of a normal kibbutz.

It was anticipated long before May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar 5708), the day of Israel's independence, that upon the establishment of the Jewish State, the small country would be attacked from all sides from the neighboring Arab countries - Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Saudi Arabia - who wanted to destroy Israel's existence.

The Hagana was given the task of preparing for this eventuality and the Ta'as, part of the Hagana, was responsible for weapons production and procurement. The Sten sub-machine guns were made in several Ta'as plants, however, it was making the 9mm bullets that presented the problem.

Ayalon Institute Laundry
Above the Ayalon Institute was the outward appearance of a normal kibbutz, with a laundry, bakery, barn, chicken coop, and vegetable fields. Except for the clandestine work of the 45 workers underground, this was a normal kibbutz and the members went about their normal kibbutz lives.

It was back in 1929 during riots, before Israel was a state, that it became clear to the newly formed Ta'as, that it was important to obtain as many weapons as possible. At the time, a bullet and ammunitions factory was considered, but first it was necessary to learn bullet-making. Yehezkel Baram left for Germany in 1931 to learn bullet-making. In 1938, Yehuda Arazi, the Hagana acquisitions director, went to Warsaw, Poland where he learned that there was an abandoned bullet-making factory.

According to Adir Cohen:

One winter morning, his aide, Catriel Katz, came to Yehuda's room in Warsaw with important information: "I have learned that in a suburb of the city there's a warehouse with old ammunition-making machines. The machines stand idle and the owner wants to sell them very cheap. It looks like this is the chance to buy the machines and send them to Eretz Israel. In the hands of Hagana, they maybe become the basis of bullet manufacture."

Sten Machine Gun
Ta'as was the underground operation of the Hagana responsible for weapons production and procurement. There were 42 clandestine weapons facilities which made the Sten sub-machine gun, ammunition, and explosives. The Ayalon Institute was the 34th plant established by Ta'as which supplied the bullets for the guns.

The bullet-making machinery had a long and difficult journey to Eretz Israel, which included absolute secrecy, negotiations, favors, several close calls of being discovered, and help from Jews in the British intelligence. When the machinery was shipped from Poland to the Haifa port, a Jewish woman who worked in the British intelligence obtained a copy of a secret telegram, and notified Shai, the Hagana Intelligence Service. The telegram alerted the British police that the bullet-making machines were packed in crates whose estimated size was 3x2x1 meters en route to Eretz Israel. The telegram included details such as the date the ship was to reach Haifa port, the number of crates aboard the ship, and where the crates were stored on the ship.

Hagana Intelligence had this telegram 30 minutes after it was delivered to the British Intelligence and word was quickly sent to Yehuda in Poland, who shipped the freight. Yehuda enlisted the help of his friend, Colonel Weiss, an officer in the Polish headquarters, to intervene and alert the shipping company to divert the shipment to Beirut to prevent this shipment from arriving in Haifa where the British police were waiting. The crates of bullet-making machines were transferred to a warehouse in Beirut where they remained for 4 years. With the aid of Jews who served in the British intelligence, and as a personal favor to Meir Spector of the Hagana, a British officer made a special trip to Beirut, representing himself as an envoy of the British Navy, and got the machines released and sent by car to Haifa, where the cargo was seized, as planned by the Hagana.

With the machines now in Eretz Israel, there was still no end to the problems that plagued the Ta'as, as making bullets was a complex and multi-staged project. The machines from Poland needed to be restored, tools were needed, a furnace for pressure casting was needed, a modern press for pressing the bullet cup was needed, producing cartridges, gunpowder for bullets, designing a cartridge to fit the Sten machine guns, how to make a heading, the shape of a bullet, how much lead goes in a bullet, the proper shape of a bullet, what to coat the bullet with, the size of the detonator. There was no copper and no brass - the problems went on and on.

Choosing the Location of the Ayalon Institute

With the machinery restored, the time was ripe to begin bullet-making production. There was much discussion in Ta'as regarding where to locate the factory. The site of the Ayalon Institute near Rehovot, not far from Tel Aviv, was chosen for several advantages:

1) It was isolated but not too remote,

2) It was elevated on a hill to allow for deep excavations for the underground factory,

3) It was a good lookout point,

4) This was formerly the site of another kibbutz 3 years prior so it would not arouse suspicion,

5) The Rehovot train station near the hill had thousands of British soldiers passing through it. The proximity to the British would make it implausible that a bullet-making factory would exist right under their noses.

Recruiting the Team to Work in the Factory

In choosing the young team to work in the factory, Yosef Avidar recounted:

I looked for a group with developed security awareness, most of whose members could work in the Institute underground and take part in its building: a group that would agree to adapt its way of life to the security needs of the Institute, since it would be necessary to limit visits to the area and to conceal its members' real place of work both from people outside the group and from organizations such as the Agricultural Center and the Rehovot Labor Council. After consultation with Yisraeli Galli and Moshe Baron, a member of Shai, the lot fell upon Hatzofim Aleph...

The members of Hatzofim Aleph were graduates of Herzilia High School in Tel Aviv and Reali School in Haifa. It was a difficult decision for the young members of Hatzofim Aleph to make. Yosef Avidar first discussed the proposal to two kibbutz members, Shlomi Hillel and Dan Amir, and asked that they decide on behalf of their members. When they demanded that Avidar discuss this with the other members of the kibbutz who would be involved, Yosef Avidar met with the kibbutz on August 24, 1945.

The concerns of the kibbutz members were many and the arguments to accept or reject the proposal were heated. There were many many factors and fears to take into consideration: fear for their lives, their future hopes and dreams, the limitation of their lives imposed by the Hagana, the intervention, and the necessity of complete secrecy from all but those who worked underground. According to Shlomo Hillel:

...In truth, it was not easy to decide. But national reason won out. The positive answer was given at once to Avidar and Moshe Baron of Shai who were pacing outside.

The kibbutz members arrived at Kibbutzim Hill on February 1945 and built the factory. The secret of their activities were to be kept from everyone, including family and friends. Only those involved and selected by Ta'as were allowed to know about the clandestine operation.

Building the Ayalon Institute

Plans for the Ayalon Institute
The ground was excavated and the concrete walls were poured.

As soon as the members of Hatzofim Alef decided to participate in this top-secret operation, building began immediately based on plans drawn up in 1938 by Professor Max Korein and Yehezkel Baram. The Kibbutz buildings were erected first including housing units, a dining hall, and a barn. Then the underground factory was built. The building was 33 meters long, 8 meters wide, and 3 meters high. In an amazing construction feet, the building was completed in 22 days! The coordination of the construction while maintaining secrecy was quite remarkable.

Upon completion of the Institute, Pesach Ayalon recounted:

When Irwin Blau, the engineer who designed the Sten and bullet production, was brought down into the Institute for the first time, he was excited to see the large hall, and began running around from pillar to pillar, hugging them and shouting in German, "So huge, so wonderful!" He was extremely happy!

The factory required 2 entrances - one for the workers and one for the machinery. One entrance was hidden below a washing machine specially designed to swing away from it base. The other entrance was under a huge 10 ton bakery oven, which was mounted on tracks.

Detailed layout of the Ayalon Institute
Bullet-making was a highly complex multi-staged process. This is a diagram of the location of the different machines and stations required for bullet-making.

A Day in the Life at the Ayalon Institute

The kibbutz members worked in shifts of 10 hours under very harsh conditions. According to Abraham Weinberg:

At 7am began the stream of workers, most of them kibbutz youngsters, precious youth...They arrived furtively, silently, from all corners of the kibbutz, without attracting notice. Some of them carried hoes that they left at the adjoining metal workshop. Work on the 'farm' fields afforded cover in the farm work roster, and if questions were asked, the reply was they were working in the citrus grove, etc. All gathered in the laundry that covered the little ascent and descent opening above the Institute and plunged down quickly. About 45 people disappeared thus within the laundry in 90 seconds, as if the earth had swallowed them, reducing to a minimum the time the entrance opening was visible....

It was hot down in the Institute; people worked in light clothes and undershirts. The noise was ear-shattering, with hammers pounding, lathes turning, a metal workshop. It was impossible to hear one another...They sang while working, but as they could not hear each other, they had to guess which song their neighboring worker was singing in order to join in.

Morale was high and everyone who went down below viewed the work as sacred. People competed there, not against someone else but to produce more than they did the day before.

Shortly after work began in the factory, a term was coined to identify those who were not aware of the operation going on at the Ayalon Institute - "giraffe" - because giraffes do not see what is going on down below. There were even members of the kibbutz, including spouses of workers, who were unaware of the activities taking place underground. Except for the clandestine work of the 45 workers underground, this was a normal kibbutz and the members went about their normal kibbutz lives, which included working and maintaining the kibbutz.

Challenges of the Ayalon Institute

Quartz light used for underground workers at Ayalon Institute
Many workers suffered from ill health and it was determined that it was from a lack of sunlight which needed to be supplemented by daily exposure to a quartz light, and improved nutrition, including meat, which was sparse.

The challenges of work in the Institute were never ending. When the factory was first built, mold formed from the wetness still in the walls so stoves were installed to dry out the factory. Proper aeration and expulsion of air was necessary with the air in the institute being replaced eight times an hour. A water and sewer system needed to be installed underground.

The Institute required a huge amount of electricity, which raised the suspicions of the Anglo-Palestinian Electric Company. The Hagana invented a system in which electricity escaped into water, which was the excuse to explain such high electric consumption. Also, a regional manager, a friend who suspected that the Hagana was behind this, called off the searches. It was very hot underground and it was incredibly noisy. The kibbutz members needed to be resourceful. When the workers shoes got worn out very quickly due to friction with copper and brass and the shoemaker in town became suspicious, the kibbutz opened a shoe repair shop.

When there was not enough laundry to keep the machines running continuously to disguise the noise from below, the kibbutz started a laundry service and opened a remote location to prevent travel to the kibbutz, and gained customers from Rehovot and a local hospital.

After a while, the workers suffered from headaches, weakness, eye strain, and paleness. The plant was visited by Dr. Kott, the Hagana's chief physician, who determined that the workers needed to be exposed to radiation similar to sunshine. After that, each worker was exposed to quartz light for a few minutes each day. He also required that their diets be supplemented with necessary nutrients.

To get the boxes out of the kibbutz every day, they were placed in a specially outfitted fuel truck, so as not to arouse suspicion, but highly dangerous. The raw materials were delivered to the kibbutz and the bullets were removed daily. It was later revealed that one of the drivers was Michael Shor, former CEO of Ta'as.

The underground workers were not aware of how the materials got there in the morning and how the bullets were removed.

Descending to the plant in the morning, they saw that the pile of cartons were gone and instead, under the machines, were new strips of copper. People did not ask questions. It was agreed that the less you knew, the better. Then you simply had nothing to reveal in case of an interrogation by the British.

The difficult work continued underground from 1945 to 1948. In that time, the Ayalon Institute produced over 2.25 million Sten bullets ~ 10,000 - 14,000 bullets daily.

The End of the British Mandate and the Creation of the State of Israel

May 14, 1948 was the end of the British Mandate and the establishment of the State of Israel. Israel was attacked from every side. Two months later, the work underground at the Ayalon Institute ceased and the bullet-making machines were transferred to another Ta'as plant for continued operation by the newly formed Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Although the underground bullet-making factory ceased operation, it wasn't until 1975 that the clandestine operation of the Ayalon Institute was made public. It's discovery was made quite by accident.

In 1975, Yisraela Kompton, head of the Society for the Protection of Nature's Rehovot Branch, was preparing for a tour of the area, specifically, Kibbutzim Hill, where the Ayalon Institute was located. The goal of the tour was to preserve sites in Rehovot. While doing research into the area, she discovered the unbelievable and heroic story of the Ayalon Institute in Gen. Yosef Avidar's book, "En Route to the IDF."

With the help of Yehudit Ayalon, the veil of secrecy that shrouded the underground bullet-making factory known as the Ayalon Institute on Kibbutzim Hill was lifted and the story of incredible foresight, coordination, secrecy, and heroism emerged. In 1986, The Ayalon Institute was proclaimed a National Site and in 1987, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin presided at the inauguration of the Ayalon Institute. In 1987, the factory was restored.

Epilogue

After the War of Independence when the Ayalon Institute was no longer needed, the members of Hatzofim Alpeh, settled at kibbutz Ma'agan Michael in August 25, 1949.

Only after we moved the last of our children and built the first huts on the hill overlooking the sea, did we feel free. The weight of constant secrecy had been lifted. Our daily struggle for existence and independence had ceased. We created a new mark on the map of Israel, one we had dreamed of for years - Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael." ~ Judith Ayalon, Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael, 1949

Today the kibbutz has 1,500 people including 400 children.

Pictures From my Visit to the Ayalon Institute

The laundry room at the Ayalon Institute
The laundry room that hid the main entrance to the Ayalon Institute

The laundry machine
Ben gets a closer look at the laundry machine that pivoted away from its base to reveal the opening to the Institute.

The stairs under the laundry machine
The stairs that the 45 workers descended to the Institute in 90 seconds, "as though the earth swallowed them up."

The bakery at the Ayalon Institute
The bakery provided cover for the second entrance to the Ayalon Institute. It was under the huge 10 ton oven that the machinery was lowered. This was not used as a main entrance to the Institute because it took too much time to move the heavy oven.

Descending the stairs under the oven
Ben and I descend the stairs underneath the oven

The Ayalon Institute
The bullet-making machines in the underground Ayalon Institute

Bullet-making machines
Bullet-making machines

Ayalon Institute Bullet-Making Machines
Our tour guide is holding the metal grid that held the bullets.

Bullet presses
Pressing the caps onto the bullets

The Shooting Range at the Ayalon Institute
Bullets were chosen at random from each batch to test their bullet speed, which is a measure of the quantity and quality of the gunpowder. In the foreground is a Sten sub-machine gun, which fired a bullet into two spinning identical cardboard discs with a marking for every interval of 360 degrees. The differential between the first disk and second disk determined whether the batch was acceptable. This firing range was underground. Despite the ongoing, highly explosive work, there were no accidents in the Ayalon Institute.

Bullet-making machines
Bullet-making machines

Lunch after the Ayalon Institute
After our tour of the Ayalon Institute, we had lunch at Teresa's. The gang: Risa, Ben, Michael, Daniel, Josh, Amir, Hanita, Alon, Kenny