A seemingly innocuous device that spread wanton fear and panic amidst ranks of hulking armored tanks and vehicles .Molotov Cocktail-the bane of the Red Army, also known as the “petrol bomb” or “gasoline bomb” was one of the first infantry anti-tank weapon to be deployed post First World War. Because of its relative ease of production and use, not to mention its devastating effect , the weapon veritably became a poor man’s hand grenade. The cocktail was born out of the Spanish Civil War, where improvised incendiary devices to set tanks ablaze was first used. However , the name Molotov was coined by the Finns in the Winter War as an insulting reference to the then incumbent Russian Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, who was singularly responsible for the bifurcation of Finland.
Recipe & Mode Of Action
The basic, stripped down version of this improvised alcohol bomb consists of a stoppered container , filled with a highly combustible liquid or napalm like mixture, with a petrol drenched piece of cloth stuffed in its neck. The stopper acted as a buffer separating the fuel from the portion of the rag, that acted as a fuse. When the bottle smashes on impact, the ensuing cloud of petrol droplets and vapour ignites, causing an immediate fireball followed by a raging fire as the remainder of the fuel is consumed
The rudimentary model, which used fuel soaked rags, as triggering device, was however extremely perilous for the users themselves , so embellishments were added to minimize the risks of usage. The improved versions, mass produced by Alkon Corporations, consisted of 750 ml glass bottles , which were filled with a mixture of gasoline, ethanol and tar. A pair of pyrotechnique storm matches was placed on either side of the bottle, which were lit just before the bottle was hurled either by hand or using a sling. The matches proved to be much more safe and reliable than the, petrol soaked rags.
The Polish army instituted another major improvement by using a highly flammable cocktail of sulfuric acid, sugar and potassium chlorate which spontaneously ignited upon impact , thereby doing away with the need of any lit fuse.
The Molotov Cocktail thrived on a particular vulnerability of pre WWII tanks , which ran on petrol instead of the current practice of using diesel. It proved to be an Achilles Heel for all pre WWII tanks, something which Molotov Cocktail exploited to devastating effect. In all the petrol powered tanks , the fuel tanks were placed at high ends of the chassis so that it can be accessed easily by the crew inside, for rapid refueling. However , this was the inbuilt glitch,of tank’s design that made Molotov Cocktail so deadly. During the Winter War, the rear end of the tanks was specifically targeted with Molotov Cocktails, so that the hot engine gets easily ignited which in turn sets the entire tank as well as the crew inside ablaze. However, it must be noted that the Russian tanks deployed in the Winter War were poorly designed , with faulty engine louvres , which allowed fuel to seep through , hence the carnage.
Use In War
Though there remains certain debate among historians as regards to the exact battle and location, where this incendiary weapons were first deployed , most agree to the fact that large scale use of these weapons were first evidenced during the Spanish Civil War, during 1936 to 1939. In the civil war, the large scale use of these weapons first happened in a futile Fascist offensive agains the Nationalist stronghold of Toledo near Madrid. The “petrol bombs” were used in order to contain the horde of T-26 Soviet Tanks , that arrived as parts of a huge cache of modernized weaponry from Stalin himself. Although the Facist regime, headed by General Franco was receiving its own “aid” packages from Hitler and Mussolini ,conspicuously absent in those shipments were modern anti-tank weapons , desperately needed to counter the Soviet Tanks .
Not wanting to lose any strategic advantage in a crucial encounter, Franco decided to bolster its most exposed infantry , with basic petrol bombs in the form of petrol soaked blankets. Though the offensive failed, buoyed by the weapons success against armored vehicles , both sides started using it sporadically throughout the civil war.
The Winter War –
However , it was during the Finnish Winter War that Molotov first shot to international limelight. After one and a half year of futile diplomatic campaign to persuade Finland to abdicate its sovereignity over certain territories in lieu of wide ranging military and political favors, a frustrated Soviet Union launched a massive offensive against Finland on November 1939, a confrontation which later came to be regarded as the Winter War. The massive Red Army with thousands and thousands of tanks rolled into Finland, intending to obliterate a seemingly puny and ill –equipped army. But the Russians had not taken into account the indomitable resolve and spirit of the Finnish army and the giant slaying capabilities of their secret weapon.
As the war started , The Russian warplanes started peppering the Finnish army and their fortifications with devastating cluster bombs and other incendiary weapons. Vyacheslav Molotov, the incumbent Russian Forign Ministeer, started propagandizing on Radio Moscow that the Russian airplanes were infact dropping humanitarian supplies, not bombs, on Finnish soil. He also asserted that the invading Red Army were marching into Finland to liberate the Finnish people from the clutches of a tyrannical government.
Outraged by his outlandish propaganda, the Finnish army began to sardonically refer the bombs dropped on them as “Molotov” picnic basket” and they felt what better way to greet those masses of liberating tanks than with a bottle of “Molotov Cocktail”
Heavily outnumbered , fighting desperately for their lives and freedom , the Finish army had no other resort but improvise in order to stem the Russian juggernaut- and improvise they did. They tinkered around , tweaked several things and ultimately perfected the design and tactical use of the Molotov Cocktail. The inflammable mixture, which was used in earlier versions was alterecto a much stickier combination of gasoline, tar, kerosene, and potassium chlorate. Other embellishments included inclusion of two wind –proof matches that removed the need for pre-ignition. The rear deck of the Soviet tanks was especially targeted so that the burning content of the bottle would seep through the large cooling grills and set the entire tank n fire from the inside. The vulneralibility in the design of pre WWII Soviet tanks were exploited greatly by the Finnish.
The tiny Finnish army were able to resist the Soviet invasion, much longer than anybody expected and in turn inflicted heavy casualties amidst the Red Army ranks. All hostilities subsequently ceased in March 1940, with the signing of the Peace Treaty Of Moscow.
Post the Winter War, the cocktail reached a cult like status among protestors and insurgents globally. Its shining moment in history came in 1956, when the peole of Hungary rose up against the communist regime. The most burning image of the struggle that lasted for nearly a week was that of a Freedom Fighter hurling a bottler of Molotov Cocktail against a Soviet tank. By the time the uprising was throroughly crushed by the Red Army, the Hungarians were able to destroy a mindblowing five hundred Soviet tanks- courtesy to Molotov Cocktail.
In the subsequent years , with major improvement in the design and architecture of tanks and other armored vehicles, the potency and use of Molotov Cocktail have diminished to a large extent. However, in world’s chronically instable regions , Molotov Cocktail remains an indespinsible weapon in every insurgents arsenal. The Cocktail still retains its allure as a shining symbol of defiance.