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Wine and Warfare part 14: The Molotov Cocktail

The fortunes of an army in battle or even a nation in arms are dependent on several factors; discipline, training, morale and technology being chief among them.

A Finnish soldier with a Molotov Cocktail

Since David and Goliath, one side has usually been mismatched on the technology front, sometimes the problem is overcome and the enemy vanquished, sometimes not.

The action film stars of the 1980s could make weapons out of whatever bits of prop were lying around and when push came to shove real soldiers did the same.

In the early days of the First World War, soldiers designed their own hand grenades using glass jars and empty tin of bully beef, though these were usually as dangerous to their operators as they were to the enemy.

They constructed make-shift sling shots and catapaults to fling these unreliable projectiles further and crafted trench fighting tools that were brutal in purpose and appearance.

The most famous makeshift weapon of them all though is the Molotov Cocktail.

The “poor man’s fire bomb” made an appearance during the Spanish Civil War when Franco’s Nationalists used them against Soviet supplied T-26 tanks in 1936.

The Republicans, generally the most poorly equipped, were quick to adopt them too.

The most famous name now used to describe all manner of improvised fire bombs however first reared its flaming head in the Winter War of 1939 between Russia and Finland.

The Winter War was a tiny sideshow in the wider conflagration of the Second World War, the flames of which were only just beginning to grow.

In 1939 the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov concluded an unholy alliance in the form of Nazi-Soviet pact.

Finland had been part of Russia for just over a hundred years between 1809 and 1917 but the Finns had broken free in the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Three months after the start of the Second World War the Soviet Union invaded Finland following a diplomatic spat over territorial rights – demands which the Soviets knew Finland would reject giving them a pretext for war although the extent to which they intended to conquer Finland is debated.

Molotov (seated) signs the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Von Ribbentrop stands immediately behind him and Josef Stalin on the right.

Outgunned and outmanned three to one, the Finns fought heroically often joking, “the enemy outnumber us a paltry three to one; good odds for any Finn” or, “They are so many, and our country is so small, where shall we find room to bury them all?”

A small country without the industrial might of its neighbour, the Finnish population converted everything it could to war production. Short of anti-tank guns they turned instead to the production of fire bombs with which to combat the Soviet armour.

To be truly effective a fire bomb had to deliver a decent amount of propellant onto its target, jam jars had been used in the Spanish Civil War but the Finns used bottles.

The Finnish alcohol monopoly, Alko, converted its distilleries and bottling plants over to the mass production of fire bombs. It produced some 450,000 during the course of the short war.

The Rajamäki distillery – which to this day bottles Finlandia vodka – was one of the key plants for the production of fire bombs.

At the start of the conflict the Soviets dropped cluster bombs on Finland which Molotov tried to claim in propaganda were actually food parcels. They became known to Finnish soldiers and civilians as Molotov’s “Bread Baskets”.

When the Russian tanks rolled forward the Finnish troops took them on with their homemade firebombs. With the “Bread Baskets” dropping on their families, the Finns referred to their bombs as, “a drink to go with food”, and began to call them “Molotov Cocktails” – a payback for the Soviet minister’s “generous” gift of bread.

Although they were produced at vodka distilleries, vodka was not the main propellant used (most soldiers would probably have begun drinking them if they were vodka based).

The preferred mixture was ethanol, tar and gasoline – a rather less savoury, if more lethal, combination.

They were surprisingly effective at knocking out the lightly armoured Soviet T26 tanks and the Finns used them to great effect, although it is likely one might have needed a good slug of vodka beforehand in order to use them at the short ranges required.

The design of the Russian tanks also made these improvised weapons more lethal than they might otherwise have been. The engine on the T26 was at the rear of the tank with cooling vents directly above it. A fire bomb lobbed onto the back deck would allow flaming kerosene to drip onto the engine below and detonate it.

The Russians lost over 3,000 tanks during the war many of them to Molotov Cocktails.

Finnish troops inspect a knocked-out Soviet T26

A British report in 1940 remarked: “The Finns’ policy was to allow the Russian tanks to penetrate their defences, even inducing them to do so by ‘canalising’ them through gaps and concentrating their small arms fire on the infantry following them. The tanks that penetrated were taken on by gun fire in the open and by small parties of men armed with explosive charges and petrol bombs in the forests and villages…

“The essence of the policy was the separation of the armoured fighting vehicles from the infantry, as once on their own the tank has many blind spots and once brought to a stop can be disposed of at leisure.”

Sadly for Finland, weight of Soviet numbers began to tell and they were finally defeated by March 1940, though not before they’d inflicted nearly four times as many casualties on the Russians as the Russians had on them – good odds indeed.

For the Molotov Cocktail though the story was just getting started. Tank armour got thicker throughout the war which diminished their use as anti-tank weapons but used as anti-personnel weapons they caused appalling burns and one thrown into a street on to an advancing enemy could cause chaos.

Their use was taken up by the British Home Guard and the Polish Home army when it tackled the Germans in the streets of Warsaw in the doomed uprising of 1944.

The Russians themselves, having learned to fear them during the Winter War, used them against the Nazis in 1941 and the fire bomb became a useful weapon in their terrible struggle at Stalingrad – a fight where, as in the First World War, constant contact with the enemy wore the combatants down mentally and physically.

Neither side gave much quarter and men began to drink heavily as the fighting grew ever more savage. Soviet troops in particular picked up a taste for booze leading one Red Army officer to comment that they would have been in Berlin two years earlier if it hadn’t been for the amount of vodka they were drinking.

Having been used in a great many conflicts since the end of the Second World War, today, the Molotov is the weapon of choice of the urban guerrilla and is still seen on television screens across the world in political disturbances and revolutions from Athens to Cairo and Baghdad and from San Salvador to Belfast and Bangkok.

Next Time: The final instalment – the British general behind the name of New Zealand’s most famous region.

Previously: Divine Winds

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