Commander Lionel “Buster” Crabb
Lieutenant-Commander Lionel Kenneth Phillip Crabb, OBE, GM (28 January 1909 – presumed dead 19 April 1956), known as Buster Crabb, was a Royal Navy frogman and M16 diver who vanished during a reconnaissance mission around a Soviet cruiser berthed at Portsmouth Dockyard in 1956.
Lionel Crabb was born in 1909 to Hugh and Beatrice Crabb of Streatham , south-west London. They were a poor family. In his youth he held many jobs but after two years training for a career at sea in the school ship HMS Conway he joined the merchant navy and the Royal Naval Volunteers Reserve before the Second World War.
Second World War
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Crabb was first an army gunner. Then, in 1941, he joined the Royal Navy. The next year he was sent to Gibraltar where he worked in a mine and bomb disposal unit to remove the Italian limpet mines that enemy divers had attached to the hulls of Allied ships. Initially, Crabb’s job was to disarm mines that British divers removed, but eventually he decided to learn to dive.
He was one of a group of underwater clearance divers who checked for limpet mines in Gibraltar harbour during the period of Italian frogman and manned torpedo attacks by the Decima Flottiglia MAS. They dived with oxygen rebreathers, Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus, which until then had not been used much if at all for swimming down from the surface. At first they swam by breaststroke without swimfins.
On 8 December 1942, during one such attack, two of the Italian frogmen, Lieutenant Visintini and Petty Officer Magro, died, probably killed by small explosive charges thrown from harbor-defence patrol boats, a tactic said to have been introduced by Crabb. Their bodies were recovered, and their swimfins and Scuba sets were taken and from then on used by Sydney Knowles and Crabb.
Crabb was awarded the George Medal for his efforts and was promoted to lieutenant commander. In 1943 he became Principal Diving Officer for Northern Italy, and was assigned to clear mines in the ports of Livorno and Venice; he was later created an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for these services. He was also an investigating diver in the suspicious death of General Sikorski of the Polish Army, whose B-24 Liberator aircraft crashed near Gibraltar in 1943.
By this time he had gained the nickname “Buster”, after the American actor and swimmer Buster Crabbe. After the war Crabb was stationed in Palestine and led an underwater explosives disposal team that removed mines placed by Jewish divers from the Palyam, the maritime force of the Palmach elite Jewish fighting force during the years of Mandatory Palestine. After 1947, he was demobilised from the military.
Crabb moved to a civilian job and used his diving skills to explore the wreck of a Spanish galleon from the 1588 Armada, off Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. He then located a suitable site for a discharge pipe for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. He later returned to work for the Royal Navy. He twice dived to investigate sunken Royal Navy submarines — HMS Truculent in January 1950 and HMS Affray in 1951 — to find out whether there were any survivors. Both efforts proved fruitless.
In 1952, Crabb married Margaret Elaine Player, the daughter of Henry Charles Brackenbury Williamson and the former wife of Ernest Albert Player. The couple separated in 1953 and divorced about two years later.
In 1955 Crabb took frogman Sydney Knowles with him to investigate the hull of a Soviet Sverdlov-class cruiser to evaluate its superior manoeuvrability. According to Knowles, they found a circular opening at the ship’s bow and inside it a large propeller that could be directed to give thrust to the bow. That same year, March 1955, Crabb was made to retire due to his age, but a year later he was recruited by MI6. By this point, Crabb’s heavy drinking and smoking had taken its toll on his health, and Crabb was not the diver that he had been in World War II.
Inside MI5 (Espionage Documentary) | Real Stories
MI6 recruited Crabb in 1956 to investigate the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze that had taken Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin on a diplomatic mission to Britain. According to Peter Wright in his book Spycatcher (1987), Crabb was sent to investigate Ordzhonikidze‘s propeller, a new design that Naval Intelligence wanted to examine. On 19 April 1956, Crabb dived into Portsmouth Harbour and his MI6 controller never saw him again. Crabb’s companion in the Sally Port Hotel took all his belongings and even the page of the hotel register on which they had written their names. Ten days later British newspapers published stories about Crabb’s disappearance in an underwater mission.
MI6 tried to cover up this espionage mission. On 29 April, under instructions from Rear Admiral John Inglis, the Director of Naval Intelligence, the Admiralty announced that Crabb had vanished when he had taken part in trials of secret underwater apparatus in Stokes Bay on the Solent. The Soviets answered by releasing a statement stating that the crew of Ordzhonikidze had seen a frogman near the cruiser on 19 April.
British newspapers speculated that the Soviets had captured Crabb and taken him to the Soviet Union. The British Prime Minister Anthony Eden apparently disapproved of the fact that MI6 had operated without his consent in the UK (the preserve of the Security Service, “MI5”). It is mistakenly claimed that Eden forced director-general John Sinclair to resign following the incident. In fact, he had determined to replace Sinclair with MI5 director-general Dick White before the incident. Eden told MPs it was not in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which the frogman met his end.
COMMANDER CRABB MYSTERY (1956) PATHE NEWS
A little less than 14 months after Crabb’s disappearance, on 9 June 1957, a body in a diving suit was brought to the surface in their net by two fishermen off Pilsey Island in Chichester Harbour. The body was brought to shore in a landing craft operated by members of RAF Marine Craft Unit No. 1107.
It was missing its head and both hands, which made it impossible to identify (using then-available technology). According to British diving expert Rob Hoole, the body had the same height as Crabb, the same body-hair colour, and was dressed in the same clothes, Pirelli two-piece diving suit and Admiralty Pattern swim fins that Crabb was wearing when he embarked on his final mission. Hoole wrote that given the length of time that Crabb’s body had been in the water, there was “nothing sinister” about the missing head and hands. Crabb’s ex-wife was not sure enough to identify the body, nor was Crabb’s girlfriend, Pat Rose. Sydney Knowles was requested to identify the body shortly after its discovery.
He described the body as being clad in a faded green rubber frogman suit of a type issued to Royal Navy divers, and the remains of a white sweater. The suit had been cut open from the neck to the groin and along both legs, revealing very dark pubic hair. Knowles examined the body closely, looking for a Y-shaped scar behind the left knee and a prominent scar on the left thigh. He failed to find any scars on the body, and stated that it was not Crabb.
A pathologist, Dr. D. P. King, examined the body and stated in a short report for the inquest that a careful examination of the body failed to reveal any scars or marks of identification.
The inquest was opened on 11 June 1957 by Bridgman, who had received the pathologist’s report that there was no way of establishing identification. As neither Knowles nor Crabb’s ex-wife nor a Lieutenant McLanachan, a Royal Navy torpedo officer from HMS Vernon, had been able to identify the body, Bridgman adjourned the inquest until 26 June to allow time for a positive identification.
The inquest was resumed on 26 June. The pathologist, King, gave evidence that he had returned to the mortuary and re-examined the body on 14 June. He reported that he had found a scar in the shape of an inverted Y on the left side of the left knee, and a scar on the left thigh, about the size of a sixpenny coin. King stated that the scar had been photographed whilst he was present.
As information was declassified under the 50-year rule, new facts on Crabb’s disappearance came to light. On 27 October 2006, the National Archives released papers relating to the fatal Ordzhonikidze mission. Sydney Knowles, a former diving partner of Crabb’s, stated in a televised interview on Inside Out – South on 19 January 2007 that Crabb did not dive alone on his fatal last mission: “He told me they’d given him a buddy diver.” Furthermore, papers released under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that there were other divers investigating Ordzhonikidze while the ship was in Portsmouth Harbour. On 9 November 2007, The Independent reported how the government had covered up the death of ‘Buster’ Crabb.
The cruiser Ordzhonikidze was later transferred by the Soviet government to Indonesia in 1962, where it operated as KRI Irian. The ship operated in the conflict against the Netherlands over West Papua, and was later used as a floating detention centre for suspected communists during the Indonesian killings of 1965–1966. The cruiser was scrapped in 1971.
Theories and speculations
Died during Soviet interrogation
The spy Harry Houghton wrote a book called Operation Portland after he was released from prison in which he outlined the explanation of Crabb’s death which he claimed to have been given by his Russian handler, a man he knew as Roman, in July 1956. Houghton claims that shortly before the Soviet visit he had been meeting Roman in a pub in Puncknowle, Dorset, and happened to see a friend who worked at the Underwater Detection Establishment with her boyfriend who was a diver. The boyfriend was annoyed that he had been training for something special, which had just been called off. Shortly after hearing this, Roman had cut short the meeting.
According to this account, after guessing that there may be some attempt by divers connected with Ordzhonikidze, the Soviet Navy had arranged for six underwater sentries to watch the bottom of the ship, which had been fitted with wire jackstays on either side to help them hold on to. When Crabb arrived, a struggle ensued in which Crabb’s air supply was turned off and he passed out. He was then hauled on board, and taken to the sick bay (having passed out a second time) and given medical treatment.
When Crabb had recovered sufficiently, the Soviets began to interrogate him; Crabb was making a confession when he collapsed and this time did not recover. The Soviets, aware that they might be accused of causing his death, decided to fix his body lightly to the bottom of the ship so that it came loose once the ship was under way. In the event, the body entangled in something underwater which meant it did not get discovered for fourteen months. Houghton also puts forward the theory that Crabb’s mission was to plant a small limpet mine on Ordzhonikidze whose purpose was to detect whether the Soviet Navy was using the latest sonar technology: if it was, the mine would detonate, and the ship would slow down; if not, the mine would eventually detach and go to the bottom of the sea.
The Crabb Affair (Part 1)
Killed by the Soviets
In a 1990 interview Joseph Zwerkin, a former member of Soviet Naval intelligence who had moved to Israel as the breakup of the Soviet Union, claimed that the Soviets had noticed Crabb in the water and that a Soviet sniper had shot him.
On 16 November 2007, the BBC and the Daily Mirror reported that Eduard Koltsov, a Soviet frogman, claimed to have caught Crabb placing a mine on Ordzhonikidze‘s hull near the ammunition depot and cut his throat. In an interview for a documentary film, Koltsov showed the dagger he allegedly used in a Russian documentary as well as an Order of the Red Star medal that he claimed to have been awarded for the deed.
Koltsov, 74 at the time of the interview, stated that he wanted to clear his conscience and make known exactly what happened to Crabb. It seems extremely unlikely that the British government would have tried to blow up a Soviet ship on a diplomatic mission while it was anchored in British waters carrying the leaders of the Soviet Union, making Koltsov’s claim of a mine suspect.
A Russian journalist from the military Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper considers Koltsov’s story improbable. In particular the archive documents do not confirm that Koltsov (a city bus driver for 30 years in Rostov-on-Don) was awarded Order of the Red Star or was a Soviet frogman. An account of this event in the Daily Mail says that Buster Crabb may have been planting not an explosive device but a listening device.
Official government documents regarding Crabb’s disappearance are not scheduled to be released until 2057.
Captured, brainwashed, defected or a double agent
Certain Members of Parliament and Michael Hall became concerned about Crabb’s ultimate fate and in 1961, Commander J.S. Kerans (and later in 1964 Marcus Lipton) submitted proposals to re-open the case but were rebuffed. Various people speculated that Crabb had been killed by some secret Soviet underwater weapon; that he had been captured and imprisoned in Lefortovo prison with prison number 147, that he had been brainwashed to work for the Soviet Union to train their frogman teams; that he had defected and became a commander in the Soviet Navy; that he was in the Soviet Special Task Underwater Operational Command in the Black Sea Fleet; or that MI6 had asked him to defect so he could become a double agent.
On 26 March 2006, The Mail on Sunday published an article by Tim Binding entitled “Buster Crabb was murdered – by MI5”. Binding wrote a fictionalised account of Crabb’s life, Man Overboard which was published by Picador in 2005. Binding stated that, following the book’s publication, he was contacted by Sydney Knowles. Binding alleged that he then met Knowles in Spain and was told that Crabb was known by MI5 to have intentions of defecting to the USSR. This would have been embarrassing for the UK — Crabb being an acknowledged war hero. Knowles has suggested that MI5 set up the mission to the Ordzhonikidze specifically to murder Crabb, and supplied Crabb with a new diving partner who was under orders to kill him.
Binding stated Knowles alleged that he was ordered by MI5 to identify the body found as Crabb, when he knew it was definitely not Crabb. Knowles went along with the deception. Knowles has also alleged that his life was threatened in Torremolinos in 1989, at a time when Knowles was in discussions with a biographer. About the claims that Crabb was planning to defect to the Soviet Union, Reg Vallintine of the Historical Diving Society was quoted as saying:
“Diving historians find it very hard to believe that this man, who prided himself on being a patriot, would have seriously considered defecting. Crabb was very fond of being a hero, and it is hard to imagine him jeopardising that status.”
It is not clear just why MI6 would recruit a man who was known to be planning to defect to the Soviet Union to spy against the Soviet Union or why Crabb would agree to such a mission if he really had decided that he wanted to live in the Soviet Union.
Death by misadventure
The British diving expert Rob Hoole wrote in 2007 that Crabb had probably died of oxygen poisoning or perhaps carbon dioxide poisoning, and that Crabb’s age and poor health caused by his heavy drinking and smoking had made him unsuitable for the mission that he had been assigned. In support of the death by misadventure theory, Hoole noted that before disappearing on his second attempt to dive Ordzhonikidze, Crabb had during his first attempt experienced equipment failure, which suggested that Crabb’s equipment was not up to standard. Crabb’s MI6 officer John Nicholas Rede Elliott always took the view that Crabb had suffered equipment failure and/or his health had given way, and that his reputation had been unfairly dragged through the mud.
In a War Documentary Series titled “Secrets Of War,” episode titled “The Cold War. Khrushchev’s Regime” a 1996 interview with former head of the KGB Vladimir Semichastny (who was the first secretary of Komsomol at the time of Crabb’s dissappearance) reported, Crabb’s decapitated body was found floating in the harbour two months after his disappearance. In the interview, Semichastny states that the “Crabb Affair” was handled elegantly.
The Silent Enemy Gibraltar 1958
Movie about Lionel Crabb
References in popular culture
- Crabb’s time in Gibraltar is covered in the film The Silent Enemy (1958), with Laurence Harvey portraying Crabb.
- Tim Binding’s novel Man Overboard (2005) is a fictional memoir of Crabb, who looks back over his career from a sanatorium in Czechoslovakia, having been seized by the KGB on his final mission for the British.
- Crabb appears in the first issue of Warren Ellis’ comic Ignition City.
- John Ainsworth Davis/Christopher Creighton in his thinly disguised fictional account The Krushchev Objective (1987) with co-author Noel Hynd, states he was the second diver with Crabb that thwarted an assassination attempt on the Soviet dictator by defusing limpet mines.
- The “Crabb affair” inspired Ian Fleming’s James Bond adventure Thunderball.
- The frogman briefly seen in the Tintin book The Red Sea Sharks was based on a photograph of Crabb.
- The Crabb affair features in Edward Wilson’s novel “The Envoy” (London, Arcadia Books, 2008)
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