Molotov cocktail: the DIY grenade destroying Russian tanks for decades
For all that is unique about this war, by resorting to the “poor man’s grenades”, the Ukrainian people are, in fact, joining a long tradition of guerillas, rioters and underdogs.
In ordering the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s biggest miscalculation may have been his apparent assumption that the Ukrainian people would immediately give in to Russian troops – or even welcome them as liberators.
From mothers and students gathering to distil the petrol bombs, to social media videos of drive-by Molotov attacks and official guides on how to make and use them, the improvised weapon has become an essential way for Ukrainian civilians to oppose their would-be occupiers.
“Right now, nobody is drinking much beer anyway because of the war, so we decided to use the bottles to make Molotovs instead,” Juri Zastavniy told The Telegraph earlier this week. He is the manager of Pravda Brewery in Lviv, western Ukraine, which has gone from making “Putin the D***head” beer to petrol bombs.
However, for all that is unique about this war, by resorting to the “poor man’s grenades”, the Ukrainian people are, in fact, joining a long tradition of guerillas, rioters and underdogs.
The long history of tanks and Molotovs
The Molotov cocktail and the Russian tank have had an intimate relationship for almost a century. The very first victims of the makeshift bombs – usually a simple construction of flammable liquid inside a glass bottle, with an additive to make the contents more viscous and a fuel-soaked fabric fuse – are thought to have been Soviet tanks attacked by Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, with the Republicans soon copying the trick.
The Molotov’s story properly begins though, with the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939. Then, as now, a Moscow dictator presented a smaller, democratic neighbour and former colony as a threat to Russian security, claiming it was governed by a “vicious and reactionary fascist clique”.
The bloody Soviet campaign involved much disinformation, with the foreign secretary Vyacheslav Molotov declaring that Soviet bombers were dropping “humanitarian” supplies and the Red Army were acting as liberators.
In response, Finnish forces sardonically dubbed the Soviet bombs “Molotov’s Picnic Baskets”. When they began to make petrol bombs to defend themselves, the obvious nickname was “Molotov cocktails”.
Indeed, Lviv’s Pravda Brewery is following in the footsteps of Finland’s State Liquor Factory, which discovered that its one-litre vodka bottles were the perfect vessels. It mass-produced more than half a million pre-packaged petrol bombs during the war between 1939 and 1940, complete with matches.
According to historian William R. Trotter’s account of the conflict, Molotov cocktails were used to successfully destroy more than 350 Soviet tanks and other vehicles. From there, the bombs became an everyday tool of professional and amateur warriors alike.
In World War II, the US Army instructed its soldiers on how to make and use Molotov cocktails. In 1956, they were once again deployed in an attempt to turn back the Soviet tide.
During the Hungarian Revolution, Molotovs were used extensively by the people of Budapest as they bravely defied the USSR’s might for two full weeks. In the streets of the Hungarian capital, 400 Soviet tanks were destroyed, at least 300 of them by Molotovs or similar bombs.
Ukrainians desperate to flee the horrors of Vladimir Putin's invasion tell their stories to Kate Geraghty and Anthony Galloway in the city of Lviv and on their way to the Polish border.
Still a place for Molotovs in modern times
Even modern, high-tech forces with all the gadgetry you can imagine have found cause to return to the lethal simplicity of the Molotov. An after-action review of the 2004 Battle of Fallujah in Iraq stated simply: “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.”
Indoor warfare is one thing, but how much harm can a ball of fire really do to an armour-plated tank? “I guess you wouldn’t think you’d have much of a chance against those babies,” the presenter of the 1943 US Army training film Crack That Tank put it. “Well, you’re wrong, see.”
Although petrol cannot melt steel armour, tanks are still vulnerable to a well-placed Molotov. As Crack That Tank explained: “The burning gas pours through cracks and crevices in the tank nine times out of 10, and it’ll find oil or grease or more gas inside.”
“A little hell on the outside, and on the inside, a lot of barbecued heinies.”
Modern tanks, which are usually sealed off against chemical warfare and have automatic fire suppression systems, present a more hardened target. Nevertheless, they do have vulnerabilities.
Official Ukrainian military advice points out that a Molotov thrown at the air intake of a tank’s engine can knock it out. If insurgents can take out the vehicle’s optical sensors, the crew inside is as good as blind.
Of course, if there is one thing the invasion has shown so far, it is that a tank without fuel or ammunition is as good as a bicycle without wheels. Many of the Ukrainian successes have come against lightly protected supply convoys and that will probably continue to be the case.
Although it is easy to cheer as every one of Putin’s tanks and trucks is disabled by a Ukrainian Molotov, one man’s empowerment of freedom fighters is another’s tool of terror. And though it might do a good job of knocking out enemy armour, a petrol bomb is also horrifically effective against human targets.
Wherever one looks, from race riots in the United States to communist uprisings in Latin America, the Molotov cocktail’s cheapness and simplicity have seen it adopted by violent extremists. In Britain, it is inextricably linked to violence in Northern Ireland.
At the so-called “Battle of Bogside”, the three-day riot that led to the deployment of the British Army and marked the beginning of the Troubles in the late 1960s, loyalists and nationalists threw petrol bombs at each other and at the police.
There too, civilians of all ages and sexes came together in the streets to put together Molotovs. Billy McVeigh, dubbed Derry’s “best rioter” by locals, told the Irish Times that “it was like a conveyor belt system making petrol bombs”.
“There were people gathering bottles, people bringing crates, people coming with flour and sugar and petrol, all doing their bit and then passing them down to us on the front line.”
The Molotov cocktail might be an easy way to get civilians involved in the war effort and boost the firepower of an undersupplied army, but there is no polishing the fact that these are nasty weapons for nasty work.
‘We’re making Molotovs from lawnmower petrol’
Peter Thomson, 58, a Ukrainian resident originally from St Andrews, Scotland, has lived in Odessa since 1993. The war has forced him to swap the running of his agricultural business for the production of Molotov cocktails.
“I run a farming company, farming about 50,000 acres of land in the south of Ukraine, growing sunflower oil, rapeseed, wheat and soybeans. Four of those farms are now in newly occupied territory,” he says.
“We have had no casualties yet, but a lot of damage is being done by Russian tanks. We’re all preparing to fight, one way or another.
“My daughter has the right to a British passport, but she’s a very intense Ukrainian patriot. We spent an hour or two this morning making Molotov cocktails from the petrol that’s usually used for the lawnmower. We had seven litres that we spun out into 20 wine bottles (in happier times I make quite a lot of cider at home). The local territorial defence has set up a roadblock on the way into the village, so we took these down as our contribution.
“As little as a week ago I could never have imagined doing this, but that’s the world we live in now. It’s gone 180 degrees in the space of four days. I don’t have any firearms, but I’ve started carrying a fairly big hunting knife with me – I don’t know what use that is against a tank.“