The Secret Life of the Dror: Part II
ABOVE: Where the Dror springs were made. ‘Israel,’ the boss, stands in the doorway. (Carl E. Ekdahl)
For reasons never made clear, Slavin took his dream to Toronto, Canada, a city directly across Lake Ontario from Buffalo, New York. Samuel J. Zacks, a Toronto financier, art collector and Zionist, helped organize the Toronto support, and enlisted the help of Norman Grant. Grant had been the General Manager of Toronto’s York Arsenals during the war. Under his supervision, millions of bullets and shells were dispatched toward the enemy. The only public trace of the company during the war was the occasional newspaper mention of the intrepid girls’ soccer team. York Arsenals vanished at the war’s end, cloaked in secrecy in operation and forgotten as soon as the doors closed. A small postwar booklet picturing the plant’s products and the corporate directors is sole testimony along with a fragment of the plant that serves as a grocery store today.
Grant also wondered why Slavin chose Toronto and suspected it was the lower wages of machinists. Keeping the project away from prying eyes probably played a role, but, Slavin was also an unapologetic and vocally self-styled “stereotypical Jew,” begrudging the cost of every coffee billed to his homeland. When Slavin had sent Alper around New York on various missions, he specified circuitous routes on subway and bus; very seldom a cab. Alper never doubted the careful routing was for security. He learned much later that the long routes, the crowds and the confusing transfers were actually to save a few pennies.
Satisfied Toronto was the place, Slavin called for Alper and Ekdahl to join him. Local connections found them space. Working over a luxury car showroom on Bay Street, their separate entrance and the constant noise of cars and car repairs was a perfect cover. Industrial Research Labs could set up as soon the landlord saw their references. Once again, Levine stepped in to co-sign the lease.
Throughout the war years, for miles around York Arsenals, sub-contractors turned and formed parts for bombs and shells. The most highly skilled workers sculpted precision tools. Most now thrived in peacetime. Grant knew them all. Ekdahl and Slavin pored over the gun’s design to identify what would be changed. Grant recruited Max Brown and they began ordering the custom tools for the 1,500 steps to make The Gun. They divided the work between the machine shops so no outsider could see the whole picture. Parts that couldn’t be explained away had to be made over the showroom. As the orders came in, parts were made and assembled.
The Gun had to be ready to build on arrival; there could be no experiments in Palestine. Slavin determined to build six prototypes with all the tools made, proven, labeled and coded for shipping.
There were a few hitches. Everything outside the tool room seemed to need community approval and local businessmen, Rabbis and others hovered around the clandestine work. Toronto’s Jewish community, terribly curious, was anxious to help the cause, but proudly avoided ‘shop talk’ at lunches and suppers with the mysterious strangers. All the attention came to a head one winter night when police stopped a truck on the highway and looked in the back.
The result was the next day’s news – and a hint of the storm to follow months later at the border – the truck carried surplus Bren gun parts. There was nothing illegal in this, but the community leaders threatened to pull the plug on IRL. The British were practically at war with the Jews in Palestine at the time and the Toronto leaders feared the disapproval of the Canadian government. In a loud meeting with Slavin, a handgun supposedly appeared and the nervous members acquired a new, quiet, resolve. The feared Canadian disapproval never materialized, but the work was only allowed to go on if Slavin stayed out of sight.
Several months into the work, Ekdahl received a secret offer. Egypt offered him $100,000 to do for them what he was doing for the Jews. Being the honest man he was, Ekdahl discussed the offer with Slavin. Being the business-like man he was, Slavin admitted it was a good offer. Carl talked it over with Hilda and turned it down.
In December, 1946, two months before the first gun was completed, Slavin was called back to Palestine. Ekdahl originally thought the project would take six months. With the new restrictions and Slavin’s absence it took a year.
Home in Palestine, Slavin took stock of the small arms in hand. Many of the Haganah guns were salvaged by Bedouins from the abandoned World War Two battlefields of the North African desert. The demand for guns had sent prices soaring for even battered relics.
The British Army had helped, albeit unofficially. With ridiculous frequency, British soldiers reported truckloads of ammunition and supplies bloodlessly ambushed or mysteriously stolen. Rifles and machine guns were lost by the appalling carelessness of patrols. In one case, a guard failed to notice a gang of strangers empty his unit’s entire armory. The man in charge of such matters later said Jewish agents spent over a quarter million dollars assisting various British friends.
There were some home-made guns of various quality. Ta’as even produced artillery as well as Sten guns. The Lehi, one of the several armed Jewish bands, made over 600 highly serviceable copies of the Sten. An underground (literally) plant churned out 9mm ammunition. The lack of raw material was partly overcome by a large purchase of lip-stick tubes. These were forged into casings.
Finally, a deal was struck in Czechoslovakia by Ehud Avriel, another of Ben Gurion’s gun-getters, to import thousands of small arms and millions of rounds of ammunition. The deal thankfully took the pressure off the immediate situation, because the news reaching Slavin from Toronto was bad.
Max Brown had been released on bail, which was small comfort. After all the months and work and worry and money, The Gun was in mortal danger. Parts had been seized, Industrial Research Labs raided, Grant arrested and the tools, drawings and remaining parts seized.
And that, Slavin feared, might be merely the start. If the police took a closer look, they’d see Harry Levine had signed the IRL lease in Toronto. If they looked closer at him, they’d see he also signed for the Machinery Processing and Converting Co. in New York. If the two were put together, the entire arms smuggling effort would be revealed. U.S. Customs only had to check their files and they could hand the British a list of ‘machinery’ shipments from MPC, and, their destinations in Palestine. The raids that would follow in Palestine could uncover dozens of Jewish underground arms factories and storage sites.
A very short time later, in Washington, DC, two anxious leaders of the American Jewish community sat down with FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover listened patiently as the men explained the devastating consequences of further investigation into the border incident. Hoover then asked them if the United States were being imperiled in any way. Satisfied with their ‘no,’ Hoover nodded and the meeting ended.
So goes the story. In all likelihood the massive Jewish effort to arm was already well known to Hoover. Ekdahl family lore tells of a railway car meeting, where government agents not only approved of Ekdahl’s work, but, came close to ordering it.
The captured gun parts were portrayed as the work of a few enthusiastic Canadians, impressive and clever, but nonetheless, minor. There was back-patting in court as the contrite Brown belatedly confessed his sins. A suspended sentence followed, and the entire issue deflated with a boys-will-be-boys shrug.
After the Toronto workshop and its contents were restored, to the utter disbelief of their owners, the clandestine work went on to package and ship, not merely a handful of guns, but the tools needed to turn out enough guns to arm a nation. And still, The Gun didn’t even have a name.
Finally, the finished guns, parts and tools were packed onto a private yacht. They sailed across Lake Ontario and into the U.S. The passengers sipped cocktails and tipped their glasses in friendly greetings to Customs. The planned test firing had to be skipped and the materials went straight to Schalit in New York for shipment to Palestine. According to the participants, 75,000 carefully jumbled pieces left, all so meticulously recorded, it was said, that not a single part was misplaced.
But, after all the delays, it was too late. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted the State of Israel into existence, to take effect the 15th of May, 1948. If there was to be an Israel a week later, the fighters needed weapons and ammunition today. Manufacture of The Gun would need a real factory with concrete floors and high-voltage. At the time, a major Ta’as factory was akin to an underground car garage. Slavin had to focus on current production. The Gun had to wait.
In Palestine, the British Army pre-empted the date for Independence and began their pull-out a day early, abandoning police stations and installations throughout Palestine and marching swiftly to the coastal ports for evacuation. To the North, the East and the South, Arab armies closed in. Many Palestinian Arabs fled, encouraged by the surrounding Arab countries. Knowing there was no retreat and no surrender, Israel struck back. The Arab armies were stopped, battered, demoralized and defeated. The Palestinians who fled found themselves unwelcome. Their descendants remain refugees and fighting continues today.
The Gun finally saw daylight after the 1948 war. More than most nations, Israel needed to develop a self-sufficient arms industry. Israel was surrounded by enemies who would cut off resupply in war, and, they feared, their friends were not the most reliable either. Considerable investment in engineering, sweat, risk and expense had been put into The Gun. Men like Ben Gurion himself wanted to see the project bloom.
Schalit’s packing crates were opened in a Ta’as factory in Shemen, an industrial district in Haifa. The Gun would be the first post-war product of Ta’as. Yisrael Galili, later to co-design the Galil rifle named after him, was in charge of production. Galili soon found that the careful organizing of parts and tools was more wishful thinking than reality. In fact, he said years later, it was all a mess.
Max Brown and Carl Ekdahl arrived in Israel in 1948. The Gun at last began production. A grateful Israel sent them home with their thanks for all they had done. By now, The Gun had a name; the Dror. Literally translated, Dror means Freedom.
The first guns made on the Toronto tooling are close copies of the Johnson Model 1944, but in .303. Some less critical parts are made crudely, and the finish is hard to pin down, but it is a well machined and crafted gun where it counts. The combination folding monopod fore-end of the M1944 is replaced with stamped, folding, bipod legs.
The problem is, the gun is still a pig to use. It is all points and edges, hard to hold and hard to love. The loaded mag is quite noticeable as a visual distraction and an off-balancing weight. The folded bipod becomes the forward grip, but the legs are a lousy hold, too widely spaced with too little surface. When fired, the Dror is a sharply loud and busy gun: It kicks with great zeal and the straight in-line design seems influential mostly in theory.
One report said less than 400 first model Drors were made, another says between 800 and 1,000 before production was halted. Two reasons for the halt are given. The first cites a number of weaknesses in the design, the other, and deciding factor, recognizes the large amount of 8mm ammunition acquired from Czechoslovakia. The design team had just gotten the .303 working well when the unwelcome order to change caliber came through.
The Dror underwent a thorough redesign. Whether the second version was an improvement or not it was, nevertheless, different. The switch to 8mm made sense for logistics alone, but, in fact 8mm is far better suited to automatic weapons than .303. The other major changes are still argued about. The barrel, left exposed by Johnson for cooling and balance, was now wrapped in a full-length barrel jacket for protection. The bipod was heftier and mounted near the muzzle. A muzzle booster was added to pump up the muscle and improve reliability. The feed system, that singular feature of the Johnsons with the lips built into the gun, was dumped in favor of the BAR magazine, possibly from an 8mm FN BAR Model D; and that was now mounted under the gun. The awkward job of replacing the side mounted magazine was now an awkward job of replacing a bottom mounted one with not enough space under the gun to do it. The resulting gun was even less handy, and, the 8mm also kicked like a mule.
Several tests pitted the .303 and the 8mm versions against the German MG 34 and the British Bren. The guns were compared on accuracy, usability, durability and most importantly, reliability.
The earliest test has the singular positive comment that the Dror was the most accurate in the single-shot mode. In automatic fire, the Dror kicked and sprayed more than the competition, throwing groups across 30 inches and more at 200 yards while the Bren and the MG34 did half that.
The Drors lacked interchangeability of magazines and had many hand-fitted parts. The familiar complaint of the Johnson’s tricky stripping and the potential loss of critical small parts came up. The gun didn’t do as well as the Bren or the MG 34 when it came to withstanding immersion in sea water or exposure to dust and sand. The troops said it was difficult and uncomfortable to carry and not much fun to shoot.
Mostly, though, it was simply a gun that missed its time. The Dror’s strongest point was to be there when there was nothing else, but, the War of Independence was over before the gun came to be. The handiness and versatility that made it ideal for the guerilla and the settler are never mentioned in the post-war tests.
Nonetheless, the Dror was fully explored. Even a rifle version was apparently produced in minute numbers. Production wrapped up with the completion of 1,000 of the second model guns. These were issued to training units and the Navy, where it was hoped they’d never be called on. Even this was done reluctantly. None saw combat.
The test reports slammed the gun and proclaimed short-recoil operation inherently less reliable than gas operation. The government was advised all future development should be of gas powered weapons. The decision to begin full production of the unproven Dror was roasted as irresponsible. Of course, with names like David Ben Gurion and Haim Slavin behind the project, it is hard to imagine how anyone could have stopped it.
In the U.S., Johnson continued development of his rifle and LMG after the war, melding them into sleek and evolved models that unfortunately met little commercial success. There is no indication Johnson knew about the Dror. Johnson Automatics filed for bankruptcy in 1949. The auction of equipment took place in March the same year. Some machinery and tooling may have made its way to Israel to supplement the Toronto contribution. Johnson moved on to development work on several other military projects.
The Johnson guns might have been still-born were it not for Holland’s all-important order. A generation later, a Dutch firm would produce the AR-10, which used the multi-lug locking system from the Johnson. Johnson himself helped develop the AR-10. Without the AR-10, the AR-15, the M16, and the M4 family still in use, would not have evolved. Considering this, Holland and Johnson had a remarkable influence on American weapons.
The existence of the Dror was a secret until well into the 1950s, and by then, a mild embarrassment. By the time the Dror became public, the lawyers were baffled. If the ownership of the patents was not muddied by bankruptcy, there was the question of who to sue: Israel didn’t exist when the Dror was hatched. Considering the failure of the gun and the fact production was cancelled, it isn’t surprising no legal action is recorded.
In 1950, the Dutch Johnsons were deployed in the Philippines against the Hukbalahap Rebellion and by the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea.
Hilda Ekdahl caught tuberculosis tending a sick relative and died tragically in 1949. Sadly missing her, Carl Ekdahl followed in 1952; but, according to his daughter, C. Elise, he died a man ‘happy with his legacy.’ A hundred years after he arrived in America, Carl’s descendants span America from coast to coast and north to south. He is remembered in Israel.
Melvin Johnson Jr. died in 1965, still working, of a heart attack. His memory and achievements are preserved by the Johnson family and known to millions.
Norman Grant, credited with running the Toronto operation, moved easily into manufacturing lighting.
Haim Slavin retired from Ta’as and kept on engineering. He developed some of the pre-fab concrete housing techniques seen throughout Israel today.
Yisrael Galili became known as the ‘Father of the Rifle’ in reference to the Galil rifle designed by himself and Yaacov Lior. He died in 1995.
Max Brown went to Palestine to serve in the War of Independence. He worked for Ta’as, likely with Ekdahl, then returned to Toronto and founded a chain of appliance stores. He passed away in 2013 in Miami. He is buried in Israel.
Between 1965 and 1969, Leonard Slater researched and wrote The Pledge recording the details about the development of the Dror and the broader effort to arm Israel prior to the 1948 war. Slater worked with NBC, Time and Newsweek, to name just a few. He died at 84 in 2005 at his home in Mission Hills, California.
Bruce N. Canfield, with Robert L. Lamoreaux and Edward R. Johnson, published Johnson’s Rifles and Machine Guns through Andrew Mowbray Publishers in 2002, illuminating the long untold Johnson story. Canfield, a premier authority on American small arms, continues to write.
However the story ended, the Dror is an incredible achievement by a small dedicated band led by Haim Slavin and Carl Ekdahl. Drors still exist in museums and the hands of collectors in Canada where the few released were sold as ‘Converted Automatics’ in the mid-1980s. Others were broken down for parts.
As a footnote, I dropped the butt of my .303 version on my foot, painfully blackening a toenail. In recorded history, this may have been the most significant wound inflicted by the Dror.
(Acknowledgement and thanks are due to Leonard Slater, author of The Pledge, Larry Collins and Dominque Lapierre, authors of O Jerusalem and to Bruce N. Canfield, author of Johnson’s Rifles and Machine Guns with Robert L. Lamoreaux and Edward R. Johnson, (Andrew Mowbray Publishers). A special thanks to Carl Ekdahl’s descendants, John Ekdahl, David Nordin and Kirsten O’Brien for their guidance, information and photos of their Grandfather, to Richard Collins for providing the 2nd model Dror, Charles Taylor of Movie Armaments Group in Toronto, Canada for use of the facilities, Graham Robertson for his photo, and G. N. Dentay, Paul Wassill and R Blake Stevens, Collector Grade Publications, for their invaluable editorial input.)