On the eve of Israel’s War of Independence, where was Israel to acquire weapons to defend herself? The British Mandatory government enforced a ban not only on Jews entering the country, but also on Jews acquiring weapons or manufacturing arms, under the penalty of death. The Haganah had to go way underground to smuggle and manufacture weaponry.
The Sten submachine gun, the mainstay of the Palmach, was able to be constructed clandestinely; not so the necessary 9-millimeter cartridges. In 1938, machines to make bullets were purchased in Poland, but on the eve of war the fighters could not import them into Israel. In the interim, the right location was selected to disguise a bullet factory.
“Kibbutz Hill” in Rechovot fit the bill, as the topography enabled the obscuring of buildings and underground construction. A nearby train station provided deafening noise to cover the factory’s operations. A large underground chamber the size of a tennis court was excavated into the hill. On top of the factory were the typical kibbutz buildings along with a laundry and a bakery. These two enterprises were the perfect camouflage for disguising and muffling what was taking place underground.
A secret entrance had to be made for the workers as well as an opening to lower the colossal bullet-making machinery into the space. The hole to lower the machinery was concealed by the bakery’s 10-ton oven. The underground workers required ventilation which was enabled through the piping hooked up to the laundry machine.
For the washing machine to conceal the noise and smell of the factory, it had to be in use 24 hours a day – which adds up to a lot of loads for a small kibbutz. Even the clothing had to do its share for the nascent State, so the kibbutz members’ clothing was washed so often that it became ragged and threadbare – but at least it was always clean! But even with this constant cycle of laundering members’ clothing, greater volume was indicated to maintain the cover. The kibbutz therefore opened a laundry service for nearby kibbutzim, and even the British brought their uniforms to be washed. But it was a risky liability having the prying eyes of the British on the premises, one which was solved when the kibbutz extended a convenient and expedient (in every sense) delivery service.
Because of the proximity of a British base to the bullet manufacturing plant, the kibbutz was under constant scrutiny and subject to frequent visits and inspections. One time a group of British soldiers walked frighteningly close to the concealed factory until a kibbutz member ran over and handed the soldiers beers to distract them and arrest their progress. The officers complained that the beer was warm and of no interest to them. The quick-thinking kibbutznik replied, “From now on, if you provide us with advance notice of your arrival, we will be sure to have the beers chilled and ready for you.” And thus, they did.
A bullet workshop must be a safe environment because of the highly combustible gunpowder. This factory had to conceal what it was doing and anticipate any possible threat that might reveal its whereabouts and goings-on. Accordingly, the factory workers would go underground very early in the morning. They were challenged in maintaining the cover of being kibbutz workers as their pale skin starkly contrasted with the bronze hues of the other workers out all day in the fields. The absence of sunlight was also responsible for vitamin D deficiencies. This was licked with a careful diet including nutritional supplements and the installation of a primitive UV (or sun) lamp.
How was the arms plant to acquire the necessary brass for the bullet casings without arousing the suspicion of the British who administered the import licenses? The kibbutz members explained to the British authorities that they were operating a beauty business specializing in cases for kosher lipsticks (which is ridiculous as lipstick is not edible and need not be kosher, but the British were not aware of this). The British bought this pretext and were rewarded with gifts of lipstick cases. There was no British number cruncher who marveled at the huge amount of brass imported for such a tiny requirement, enabling huge quantities of brass to be delivered to the kibbutz right under their noses… and lips.
For three years, forty-five young men and women engaged in dangerous work in the very hot, dark, dusty, and claustrophobic bullet factory. Supreme caution was implemented to avoid injury, and amazingly and providentially, at a non-ideal worksite where more than two million cartridges were filled by hand with gunpowder, the most severe injury was the loss of a fingertip.
Since the gunpowder smuggled into the factory was sometimes of poor quality, a testing and quality facility was also on the premises. To ensure that the ammunition was safe and effective, bullets were randomly sampled by shooting them at targets to verify accuracy and precision. Each day, when the raucous train lumbered by, undetected bullets were fired. When the workers exited the factory, they had to make sure they were free of any trace of their work (such as brass shavings or gunpowder).
In the first year of the factory’s operation, the ammunition was smuggled outside the kibbutz in the false bottom of milk cans – milk being an unsuspicious commodity for a kibbutz. This method, however, proved problematic as the milk cans were unreasonably heavy and plentiful. The milk was coming from a small kibbutz, not the dairy-producing capital of the Middle East. A new method had to be instituted.
At least once a day (or night), fuel was delivered to the kibbutz. The British never would have suspected that explosive bullets would be hidden in secret compartments of fuel trucks.