On the morning of the 30th November 1939, 21 Soviet Divisions crossed the Finnish border with the aim of installing a puppet government. Soviet commanders had watched how the Whermacht had stormed into Poland using tanks, artillery, aircraft and infantry in a coordinated fashion and wanted to copy the experience in the nordic landscape. Deploying some 2,514 tanks, mainly T-26s and BT-series, the Finnish military was woefully ill-equipped to deal with such armour. During a modernisation programme started in 1938, Finland had realised that any future war would require anti-tank weapons and had looked to the Swedish made Bofors 37mm gun as the main weapon for Finnish units. However, by the outbreak of war, only 48 of these guns were in Finland. Finland needed other weapons to combat the Soviet tanks, luckily they had an answer, in the form of a glass bottle filled with flammable liquid. This weapon would soon come to be called the Molotov Cocktail, and today it still stands as a symbol of resistance in the face of insurmountable odds.
The use of fire as a weapon can be traced back to at least the classical period. Fire was seen as an essential tool in warfare, it was easy to produce and use and could be devastating. Container based improvised incendiary weapons can be seen as far back as the French Revolution, but it wouldn’t be until the First World War that we would see any form of mass production of these types of weapons. In May 1915, Lieutenant General P.K. Kondzerovsky sent a letter to Russian Imperial Army Headquarters with a suggestion to develop some sort of air-dropped incendiary device. In June 1915, Warrant Officer B.N. Yuryev of the Imperial Moscow Technical School produced a glass bottle filled with a waste oil, gasoline and kerosene mixture. Several thousand of these were produced and sent to Aviation units in preparation for offensives against Austro-Hungarian forces in August 1915, however the performance of these early petrol bombs was lackluster. The bottles didn’t break on contact with the ground, having a habit of digging into it, many of those that did break failed to ignite and the few that did ignite had a negligible effect upon the enemy.
It was during the Second Abyssinian War that container-based improvised incendiary weapons would be used as an anti-tank weapon. The Ethiopian forces would fill glass bottles and ceramic jugs with various flammable liquids, such as petrol, kerosene, oil, and then throw the bottle onto the Italian tanks, this would then be followed by someone throwing a burning piece of fabric which was attached to a stick to ignite it. This carried with it some downsides, like needing both elements to hit the target, but when the result was achieved, the Italian tanks (mainly Fiat 3000s and CV.3 tankettes) suffered. However, no matter how many of these devices the Ethiopians used, it was never enough to turn the tide and Ethiopian Empire fell in May 1936.
It would be the Spanish Civil War though that saw the ubiquitous petrol bomb being used. During the Battle of Seseña in October 1936, Nationalist Spanish Forces used alcohol or petrol filled bottles with a piece of fabric tied to the top against Soviet T-26 tanks. The fabric would be set alight just before the bottle was thrown at the target, this made it a lot more efficient than the Abyssianian version. It wasn’t long before both sides employ large numbers of the simple petrol bombs. They came to international attention due to their popularity by the International Brigades and press coverage of the war. Because of the simplicity in design, and effectiveness against tanks of the era, many militaries added the tactic to their infantry manuals.
Chinese troops threw beer bottles filled with petrol at Japanese tanks during the Shanghai in 1937. During the Soviet–Japanese border conflicts in 1938 and 1939, especially at Lake Khasan and Khalkhin Gol, Japanese anti-tank teams were armed with a combination of petrol bombs and anti-tank mines attached to poles. The effectiveness of these teams is unclear due to confliction in Japanese and Soviet reports. Another example that shows how widespread the usage of petrol bombs were was during the Polish campaign in September 1939, due to the lack of infantry anti-tank weapons, most squads produced their own versions of the Spanish petrol bomb during their defence against the armoured units of the Wehrmacht and Soviet Union.
Design and Development
Tanks had become such a central feature of military thinking in the interwar period that even the smallest and poorest nations purchased them, even if they were obsolete Renault FTs or ineffective tankettes. As with all weapon systems, there is always attempts to counter it. Nations such as Britain, France, the Soviet Union and Germany, put money into large calibre anti-tank rifles or small calibre anti-tank guns (25-47mm), however poorer nations didn’t always have the funds to develop such weapons and thus had to rely on whatever they could obtain from the international market or wait out long domestic development periods.
There is, however, always the third option. Necessity is the mother of invention and this is the main route that Finland took in the 1930s. Sotilasmestari (Sergeant Major) Johan Valli claimed to have produced a petrol-bomb like device in 1932 or 1934 while serving in Bicycle Battalion 2, after being asked by the commander of the battalion how to destroy tanks. However this has been disputed as no evidence other than Valli’s own words have been produced. The accepted history of the ‘Molotov Cocktail’ starts in 1937 with Kapteeni (Captain) Eero Kuittinen, commander of the pioneer company at the Koria Garrison. Kuittinen had been following the developments of the Spanish Civil War and decided that the petrol bombs used by both sides would make for an efficient anti-tank weapon for themselves. Reaching out to a civilian friend, Väinö Hannula, and three young Vänrikkit (2nd Lieutenants) ,the modest and unofficial development team set to the task of improving upon the concept used by the Spaniards.
The first rendition consisted of a glass bottle filled with petrol and stopped with cotton waste. Two main issues were highlighted during the tests. The burning cotton made the thrower too visible to be of tactical use and the petrol didn’t stick to the target. The problem with the liquid was solved by adding pine tar, between 20-30% of the mixture, which gave three benefits. The first being now the liquid stuck to the target, the second being it produced thick black smoke which aided in blinding the tank, and the third was it burned at a higher temperature for longer time. The obstacle of the ignition was overcome by using storm matches. Kuittinen’s team had reached out to a match factory in Lahti and one of their engineers participated in the testing. By using two 12cm storm matches that were simply taped to opposite sides of bottle with insulating tape, a 60 second long burn could be achieved without too much giveaway. By Spring 1939, this ignition method was fully tested.
The match company wasn’t the only coopartion Kuittinen received. The Riihimäki Glass Factory also provided several different types of bottles for the team to test, this included some especially made for the team. After testing the many bottles, the team settled on the 500ml 1934 alcohol bottle. This was 26.5 centimeters high with a diameter of 6.8 centimeters, with glass thick enough to withstand the heat of the matches but thin enough to smash when thrown. The bottle cap was a standard aluminium screw cap, but some also used bakelite cork when aluminium was needed for other production.
With the design now set, Kuittinen published instructions on how to make and use the device in “Pion. Tekn. ohjeita N:o 1” (Sapper Technical Instructions number 1) in August 1939. It was also around this time that the unofficial project became more official and the Finnish military put plans in place to produce these weapons in the event of war. Five bottling plants were chosen to produce the weapons but as war broke out, it soon became apparent that these would not be enough. It was at this point that the state owned alcohol monopoly Alko Oy stepped in. Being the only company licensed to produce or sell strong alcoholic beverages in Finland, they had bottle plants with highly efficient bottle filling lines. Defence Minister Juho Niukkanen put the wheels in motion by giving the order for Alko to 40,000 bottles immediately. The Rajamäki bottling plant was selected as the main producer and the order was completed in only 2 days. The first bottles reached the front on the 4th of December, giving some hope to the desperate Finnish defenders.
Development didn’t stop there though. Kuittinen was ordered to keep working on his design. Different recipes were tried out to improve upon the effectiveness, with sulfate turpentine, kerosene, waste oil, methylated spirit, potassium chlorate, coal tar being some of the material used in the experiments. Another improvement was in how to ignite the cocktail. The biggest flaw in Kuittinen’s design was that the thrower needed to ignite the matches before throwing the device, this meant spending precious seconds still in a combat environment. Future Nobel Prize winner Artturi Virtanen had the solution to this problem. He was inspired by the fuses of old Russian naval mines, which used a vial of sulfuric acid surrounded by a mixture of potassium perchlorate and sugar, which ignited when mixed and thus exploded the mine. He presented his idea Kenraaliluutnantti (Lieutenant General) Vilho Nenonen, Chief of Arms Planning, for an improved version of Kuittinen’s device that contained a small capsule with a self-igniting material but he was rejected. However, as war broke out, the Arms Planning office took the idea and produced a small glass ampoule filled with self-igniting material (the most popular being sulfuric acid). These became known as “A-pullo” (“A-bottle”).
What’s in a name?
Today the name Molotov Cocktail is synonymous with the Winter War in a similar way to how Blitzkrieg is with Germany’s tactics in the early years of the Second World War. However the etymology behind it has been subject to many studies and theses. The standard and most popular story is that after Vyacheslav Molotov, Minister of Foreign Affairs, publicly denied that Red Air Force planes were not bombing Finnish cities but airdropping food for the starving population, the RRAB-3 rotationally dispersing aviation bomb was nicknamed Molotov’s bread basket. In response to this, the Finns nicknamed their polttopullo Molotov Cocktails so there was drink to go with the food.
However, this explanation has been called into question by historians and etymologists. The weapon was first brought to the publics’ attention by New York Times reporter, Harold Derry, who’s dispatch printed on the 21st December 1939, read: “The Finns have a rough, home-made weaåpn that they find very effective, it is simply a mineral water bottle half filled with gasoline, with a stick attacked like a fuse. The finns hide in pits, over which the advancing tanks crawl. The moment the tanks pass, the Finns emerge, so close to the tanks that the latter’s guns cannot open fire on them. The finns then light the stick and hurl it at the tank. The bottle explodes and parts of the blazing gasoline goes through openings in the tank, often igniting the monster’s gasoline or exploding its munitions.” But the first recorded usage of the term Molotov Cocktail is from a 26th January 1940 dispatch that ended up in a 27th January copy of The Times of London. It reads: “One of the Russian tanks had been destroyed by only one direct hit from a 3in. Gun. The tanks often get stuck on the road, as the petrol mixture used – the so-called Molotoff cocktail – seems to be unsuitable for these temperatures”. As you can see, this doesn’t refer to the incendiary device but to the fuel used in the Soviet tanks. Molotov became a popular slang word in Finland mostly with a negative connotation, Molotovin ilma and Molotovin sää (Molotov Weather) have both been seen in military and civilian works during the Winter War. It described weather that was ideal for flying, thus meaning a likely attack by the Soviet Red Air Force. Molotovin Kanat (Molotov’s Chickens) was used to describe Soviet airplanes. Blackout curtains were called Molotov curtains. Studies in Etymology and Etiology: With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance and Slavic Languages by David L. Gold records at least 21 different slang words that used Molotov. It is possible that foreign reporters in Finland caught onto the concept of using Molotov as a slang word and applied it to the bottled weapon that was catching their attention. Between the end of the Winter War and the start of the Continuation War, Molotov Cocktail appeared in the New Supplement of the Oxford English Dictionary, where is referred to the weapon.
Another possible origin for the name, and the one that appears in the Journal of Military History (Sotahistoriallinen aikakauskirja), is Professor Alvar Wilska. Wilska worked with Artturi Virtanen in developing an alternative ignition for the weapon and during the rise in tensions between Finland and the USSR he claims to have coined the term Molotov Cocktail because the foreign minister of the Soviet Union was “Finland’s worst enemy”.
Whatever the true origin, the term Molotov Cocktail did become a semi-official military term by the outbreak of the Continuation War, appearing in military pamphlets on how to create such weapons. By the end of the Second World War, the term had become widespread enough that it became very common to see it used for any improvised container incendiary device.
When the tanks of the Soviet Red Army crashed through the border in November 1939, the Finnish forces found themselves completely overwhelmed. Each Division was allocated an Antitank-gun Company, which was formed of 2 gun platoons with 2 guns in each platoon. However this was paper strength and many divisions struggled to even have one platoon in the early months of the war. In the gap left by official anti-tank units, ad-hoc “bomber units” or “close defense units” were raised at all levels (Company, Battalion, Regimental and Divisional). These were squad or platoon sized units, mainly composed up of volunteers, and were equipped with satchel charges, grenade bundles, mines, molotov cocktails and even logs and crowbars.
These teams were effective due to the tactics of the Red Army, as William Trotter in A Frozen Hell states;
“…Soviet tank/infantry tactics had not been such a botch. Coordination between the two arms was virtually nil: they attacked together, in the same general direction, but that was all. The tanks would surge forward seize a patch of ground, and then churn around aimlessly on that ground, waiting of the infantry to catch up to them. When the tankers realised their infantry were not coming, whether because they had been repulsed at the wire or just never showed up at all, they either withdrew on their own accord or else formed defensive wagon-train circles and tried to hold their gains through the hours of darkness. And when the sun went down, the Finnish tank-killer teams came out to stalk.”
The Finnish forces would use the impatience of the tanks against them. Infantry would huddle down in their trenches, dugouts and bunkers and allow the tanks to pass them, then they would come up and fire upon the following infantry. Red Army doctrine at the time taught infantry soldiers that upon being fired upon, the standard procedure was to hit the ground and halt the advance. While the front line engaged the Soviet infantry, close defense teams would do their job. Using whatever cover they could, the team would pair off and approach the tanks. The lead tank would be targeted first, one man using something to blind the tank (smoke grenade, specially adapted Molotov Cocktail or even blankets). The second man would then use his weapon, molotov cocktail, satchel charge or mine against the tank, aiming for the vulnerable areas such as engine deck and drive sprocket. The attack on the first tank would signal to the rest of the team to engage the other tanks.
In areas with forest tracks, the close defense teams would set up a number of shell scrapes along a certain part of it, these would normally hold a couple of molotov cocktails. At a certain point a roadblock would be constructed from any material at hand, sometimes even just a felled tree. By this roadblock an anti-tank gun could be placed and would wait for the column of tanks to approach. Once the gun had knocked out the first tank, the team would then strike. Dashing from shellscrape to tank then to another shellscrape. This process would repeat until all the tanks were knocked out or they retreated.
This tactic was not without risks though and it is estimated that close defense teams averaged a 70% casualty rate. In areas with less cover, such as at Summa, such tactics had less chance of succeeding. Also once the Soviet Red Army reformed in January 1940 and coordination between infantry and armour improved, it became harder for the Finns to seperate them and thus harder to ambush.
Due to the actions of Defence Minister Juho Niukkanen, there were plenty of Molotov Cocktails on the main defence line at the Karelian Isthmus when Soviet forces broke against it in early December, with the first batch arriving at the 2nd Army Corps on 4th December 1939. With the overwhelming number of Soviet tanks advancing into Finland, more ‘field factories’ were set up to produce the Molotov Cocktail. By the New Year, the numbers produced was a mind boggling 257,887.
These were a much welcome additional to the Finns armoury, due to the lack of anti-armour weaponry. The Winter War can be divided into two types of fighting, those units part of the Army of the Isthmus, would fighting a more conventional war, using the defensive structures of the so-called Mannerheim Line as the centrepiece for their strategy. However, as the Finnish military could only muster a limited number of men and the main bulk having to be deployed on the isthmus, those assigned elsewhere would have to engage in what would now be termed asymmetric warfare. The Molotov would play vital roles in both areas. In the more static trench type warfare of the Ishtmus, the molotov was deployed mainly behind the frontlines as the Soviet tanks smashed through whilst the supporting infantry were pinned down by Finnish machine gun fire. In the more fluid northern area of Finland, where frontlines didn’t technically exist, the Molotov became the ideal ambush anti-tank weapon.
One of the downsides to utilising the existing supply of bottles for the molotov became apparent on the 26th December when several bombers targeted the bottling plant at Rajamäki. In the haste to get as many Molotov Cocktails to the frontlines as quickly as possible, the plant used the caps already in stock. These had the words “Alko – Rajamäki” clearly on them and it wasn’t long before this information was filtered through the Red Army’s chain of command and the Red Air Force was tasked with disrupting the production. The plant was bombed 9 times, with a total of 268 bombs of various sizes being dropped throughout the conflict. Fortunately none struck the factory, although bombs did land close enough to shatter windows. Both Alko and the military had predicted the strategic importance of the plant and together they funded two concrete towers that would house 40mm Bofors Anti-Aircraft guns, when war broke out the 51st Light AA Battery was mobilized to man the guns at Rajamäki. They expended 627 rounds and claimed 2 bombers shot down and 5 damaged.
The Winter War ended on the morning of the 13th March 1940. After 105 days of fighting, the casualties on both sides were immense but Finland stood proud to have defended its sovereignty. The Rajamäki factory produced 541,194 (this includes 1,500 of the A-pullo type) during the war, other smaller factories the number of molotovs of all types produced is around 600,000.
After the Winter War, Finland entered what is now called the Interim Peace and the Molotov remained in the inventories of the military. When Finland joined in the war against the Soviet Union on the 25th June 1941, in what is known as the Continuation War, they had 153,391 of the Match type Molotov and 40,430 of the A-type Molotov. The weapon wasn’t as effective as it had been during the Winter War, mainly down to the advancement in Soviet Tank design but also because the weapon works better as a defensive, ambush device and Finland was on the offensive. However, the weapon still provided a morale boost and could work in conjunction with other weapons such as the Lahti anti-tank rifle and satchel charges. Rajamäki still took charge of producing the majority of the Molotov’s but due to the lack of effectiveness, they were not produced in the same amount of numbers as the Winter War.
Ahti Lappi, Ove Enqvist, Ohto Manninen, Anssi Saari, Pekka Saloranta. Sotahistoriallinen aikakauskirja 24 (The Military History Society of Finland and the Military Museum of Finland, Helinksi 2005)
Trotter, William R. The Winter War, The Russo-Finnish War of 1939–40. (Aurum Press, Limited, 2003)