What a World

07.18.14

Israel Had a Secret, Underground Bullet Factory

‘Breaking Bad’ wasn't the only one to hide illicit activities beneath a laundry. In the early days, Israel did the same, secretively producing millions of bullets below a fake kibbutz.

There are two ways to get into Israel’s secret bullet factory: one, is beneath an industrial washing machine, lifted with the press of a button, in what was—for all intents and purposes—a laundry room (a setup that would make Walter White proud). The other is under a hefty oven in a bakery just a couple yards away. Trapdoors, ladders, and a spiral staircase descend deep underground to a defunct hub used for ammunition manufacturing that was instrumental in creating modern-day Israel.

Sixty-nine years ago, an illegal underground Jewish militia called the Haganah used the subterranean space to produce bullets right under the noses of the British, who controlled the territory and forbade Jews from carrying weapons. Punishment for being caught with arms was possible death. But young Zionists who had arrived in the inhospitable land intent on settling their promised country by whatever means foresaw a war over their claimed nation once the British left, and rapidly began to take precautionary steps.

Already hardened by a rough life of building their communities from scratch, these determined pioneers were nothing if not enterprising in difficult circumstances. Under the guise of starting a new kibbutz—a kind of communal and agricultural community that had sprung up across the country in the prior decade—a group of recent Jewish youth scout graduates moved into a location just 15 miles south of Tel Aviv.

Head of the Haganah, Yosef Avidar, believed the most strategic place to begin the manufacturing would be directly next to a British military camp. So he and the scouts dug into a limestone hill and built a factory in record speed. In less than a month, a 25-by-100-foot space had been completed, buried at least four yards underground. It was code-named Machon Ayalon, or the Ayalon Institute, after a biblically significant valley in Israel.

The new kibbutzniks quickly started running their laundry center around the clock, bringing in loads of dirty clothes from nearby cities, a maternity hospital, and even the neighboring British camp. They covered their tracks by traveling to the Brits for pickup and delivery.

While millions of bullets were being made, Kibbutz Tzofim Alef’s other residents milked cows and sowed fields as usual.

The reason for this nearly 24-hour laundry cycle was simple: The huge washing machines and old-fashioned hot-water boilers disguised the roars and screams of 30 bullet-making machines. The WWI-era equipment had been acquired from a Polish ammunition factory in the late 1930s. Adding to the racket, a shooting range also shared the underground space in order to test the bullets and ensure quality control.

Some 45 workers slaved over the machines in two half-day shifts. After getting off work, they would spend a few minutes in a room with a blue tanning lamp to darken their skin enough to support their cover story of working in the fields. But most of the kibbutz members didn’t even realize the dramatic war operations going on beneath their feet. While millions of bullets were being made, Kibbutz Tzofim Alef’s other residents milked cows and sowed fields as usual—completely unaware of the illicit movements below.

“We had to improvise,” Yehudit Ayalon, who began working 10-hour shifts in the factory at age 19, told Haaretz last year. The dedicated young mother even took the factory’s name as her own. “It was not frightening. It’s very difficult for me to reconstruct the feeling because we were so dedicated and we wanted it to succeed. And we knew the dangers, of course. One little lapse and the British would hang us.”

To further ensure no suspicions were raised, carpentry and metal shops were built around the laundry to serve as cover for the oil stains and metal scents emanating from emerging workers. The factory’s organizers even plugged their operation directly into the British power source so their heavy use of electricity couldn’t be separately detected. Bullets were smuggled out in milk cans, and, later, in compartments of fuel trucks—a risky place to stash gunpowder-filled ammunition.

British soldiers occasionally came to the kibbutz, but enough advance warning kept suspicions low. The factory leaders crafted a cover story of lipstick manufacturing to hide their need for an enormous amount of copper sheeting, and the kibbutz leaders would gift British soldiers with makeup for their wives.

The fears of the Zionists were confirmed after three years of non-stop production. In 1948, one day after Israeli independence was announced, six Arab armies invaded the tiny nation. An unlikely David and Goliath war played out for the next seven months, but an underdog Israeli defense succeeded in defending the sliver of land. The bullet factory of Machon Ayalon birthed Israel’s military industry and the Israeli Defense Forces.

Winning the War of Independence, the Israelis were free to manufacture weapons aboveground. When the factory closed in 1948, a total of 2.5 million bullets had been made.

The subterranean lair reopened as a museum on Independence Day in 1986 after the factory’s restoration. The project had been made public just a decade earlier. Now, visitors can wander through wooden workstations with life-sized statues of early Zionists molding bullets and operating machinery. Above them hang portraits of the original clandestine laborers. Once their jobs in the factory ended, the bullet-makers migrated from their drab dummy community above and headed toward the shore, establishing a new kibbutz—only this time, it was real.