The Molotov cocktail defines simplicity when it comes to weaponry. It’s a glass bottle with a rag and some flammable fluid. I won’t give detailed instructions on how to make one, but it’s not exactly rocket science… which may be why we’ve seen this weapon’s use across so many conflicts, big and small, around the globe, including the ongoing war in Ukraine.
This simple firebomb has been around for decades and has a fascinating history. Not only is it a weapon, but it exists as a symbol as well. Let’s explore the Molotov cocktail a bit. Its history and some of its uses just might surprise you.
History of the Molotov Cocktail
Most of us associate the Molotov with riots, guerillas, and terrorists, but it began as a desperate tool of war. The famed fire bomb originated in the Spanish Civil War, which raged from 1936 until 1939. General Francisco Franco was facing the threat of modern Soviet tanks, and the majority of his forces lacked anti-armor weapons at the infantry level.
With few other options, he ordered his force to employ petrol bombs. The Battle of Sesena saw a Republican-Soviet assault on the Nationalist stronghold of Sesena. The Republicans attacked with their Soviet-supplied weaponry, and it became a fascinating battle for a number of reasons.
First, it was the Spanish Civil War’s introduction to massive tank warfare, and it became one of the first widespread documented uses of the Molotov cocktail. The Nationalist troops were able to destroy three Russian T-26 tanks and damage three more with these firebombs. The T-26 used rubber in the track designs, and the fire could burn and destroy the rubber, shutting the tank down. The Molotov cocktail proved effective and would become a large part of wars to come.
The Japanese adopted this anti-tank tactic soon after, in 1939, during the Battle of Khalkhin Goi. According to the Japanese, they stopped ‘hundreds’ of Soviet tanks with petrol bombs. The Soviet’s reports (unsurprisingly) don’t indicate the same, but petrol bombs were effectively used without a doubt in this battle.
The name of the Molotov Cocktail comes from ole’ Vyacheslav Molotov. Mr. Molotov helped to produce the Nazi-Soviet peace treaty that emboldened the Soviets to invade Finland. But it was actually the Finns who coined the name “Molotov Cocktail” during the Winter War with the Soviets.
The Finnish not only named Molotov cocktails but apparently perfected them through the use of igniters that utilized wind-proof matches and or chemicals that would ignite on breakage. Molotov cocktails became more than an improvised weapon with the Finns. Factories produced the bombs in an actual distillery and bundled them with matches. Almost half a million were produced.
The Finns utilized smart tactics that would allow Russian tanks to penetrate their defenses, while at the same time, separating them from their infantry with small arms fire. This left the tanks vulnerable to both Molotov cocktails and explosive charges. Once a tank became vulnerable, and the Finns exploited that vulnerability and destroyed them.
From World War 2 to the Global War on Terror
Throughout World War 2, the Molotov cocktail expanded rapidly. The Brits faced possible invasion, and they’d learned of the effectiveness of the Molotov cocktail from the Finns. They began formulating instructions for troops, and British chemical companies began to experiment with white phosphorous for ignition purposes.
The Norwegians, Polish, and even the United States Marines used Molotovs during World War 2, and as a result, the Molotov cocktail became part of the people’s collective consciousness. Thanks to its low cost, ease of construction, and relative effectiveness in combat, it was soon seen in the hands of various post-war terrorist forces and rebellions throughout the world.
In the Second Battle of Fallujah, which took place in 2004, the Marines did what they always do. They improvised, adapted, and overcame. They were facing entrenched enemies who were willing to kill themselves to kill Marines. In an AAR: Lessons Learned: Infantry Squad Tactics in Military Operations in Urban Terrain During Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, Iraq, under the demolition section, we find an interesting paragraph.
“The variety of explosives used during the fight for Fallujah will not be mentioned here. The few that will be explained have a common theme of being obscure and maybe forgotten if they are not written down. Each explosive device was developed in response to the enemy’s tactics and has been proven to work.”
The fourth item on the list was:
“Molotov cocktails – one part liquid laundry detergent, two parts gas – Used when contact is made in a house, and the enemy must be burned out.”
Birth of a Symbol
But despite its inception and use by national militaries, the ubiquitous and innocent nature of the Molotov’s ingredients soon turned the low-cost weapon into a symbol for those on the less-equipped side of asymmetric conflicts. Today, the Molotov cocktail is often seen as emblematic of rebellion and struggle. People tossed them in the Ukrainian revolution, the 2014 Bangladesh anti-government protests, in the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests, and in the United States during various riots and protests over the decades.
It’s important to note that I’m not making a character judgment about any particular rebellion, riot, or conflict. In order to really appreciate the effect this simple weapon has had on world history, we need to understand how it’s perceived just as intimately as we understand its use.
These days, the Molotov Cocktail wouldn’t work against modern tanks, and, of course, it’s an extremely dangerous weapon to employ. Fire cannot be controlled, and as such, the potential for casualties is quite high. Its efficiency against military targets is rather low in most cases, but the potential for harm to the user and to anyone in the vicinity of its uncontrolled fire is remarkably high. It’s a simple weapon with a fascinating history and complicated legacy, but it’s not a particularly good one.
In fact, over the span of its use, the rebellious imagery associated with the Molotov Cocktail may have become a more powerful weapon for those who wield it than the flames they can yield.