Lionel Crabb

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For the American swimmer and actor, see Buster Crabbe.
Lionel Crabb
Lionel Crabb.jpg
Crabb, April 1944
Nickname(s) Buster
Born 28 January 1909
London
Died 19 April 1956 (presumed dead)
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Navy
Years of service 1941–47
Rank Lieutenant Commander
Awards George Medal
Officer of the Order of the British Empire
Other work MI6 diver

Lionel Kenneth "Buster" Crabb OBE, GM (28 January 1909 – presumed dead 19 April 1956) was a British Royal Navy frogman and MI6 diver who vanished during a reconnaissance mission around a Soviet cruiser berthed at Portsmouth Dockyard in 1956.

Early life[edit]

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 Volunteer Reserve before World War II.

World War II[edit]

At the outbreak of World War II, 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, Lt. Visintini and Petty Officer Magro died, probably killed by depth charges. Their bodies were recovered, and their swimfins and Scuba sets were taken and from then on used by Sydney Knowles and Commander Lionel Crabb.

He was awarded the George Medal for his efforts and was promoted to Lieutenant commander. In 1943 he became Principal Diving Officer for Northern Italy, 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.[1]

By this time he had gained the nickname "Buster", named after U.S. 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 Irgun, the Zionist militant group. After 1947, he was demobilised from the military.

Civilian diver[edit]

Crabb moved to a civilian job and used his diving skills to explore the wreck of a Spanish galleon and he 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 — the HMS Truculent in January 1950 and HMS Affray in 1951 — to find out whether there were any survivors. Both efforts were 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.[citation needed]

In 1955 Crabb took frogman Sydney Knowles with him to investigate the hull of the Soviet cruiser Sverdlov 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 had been in World War II.[2]

"The Crabb Affair"[edit]

Disappearance[edit]

The Ordzhonikidze was a Sverdlov class cruiser similar to that shown in this photograph (Alexander Nevsky).

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 the 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 where 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 J.G.T. Inglis OBE, the Director of Naval Intelligence,[2] 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 the 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.[3] Eden told MPs it was not in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which the frogman met his end.[4][5]

Body found[edit]

A little less than 14 months after Crabb's disappearance, on 9 June 1957, a body in a frogman suit was found floating off Pilsey Island in Chichester Harbour. It was missing its head and both hands, which made it impossible to identify (using then-available technology).[2] The body had the same height as Crabb, the same body-hair color, 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.[2] The British diving expert Rob 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.[2] Crabb's ex-wife was not sure enough to identify the body, nor was Crabb's girlfriend Pat Rose, though Sydney Knowles said that Crabb had had a similar scar on the left knee. An inquest jury returned an open verdict but the coroner announced that he was satisfied that the body was that of Lionel Crabb.

Fate[edit]

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.[6] Sydney Knowles, a former diving partner of Crabb's, stated on televised interview on Inside Out - South: 19 January 2007 for the BBC that Crabb didn't dive alone on his fatal last mission

Furthermore papers released under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that there were other divers investigating the Ordzhonkidze while she was in Portsmouth Harbour.[7] On 9 November 2007, The Independent reported how the government had covered up the death of 'Buster' Crabb.[8]

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 floating detention centre for suspected communists during the Indonesian killings of 1965–1966. The cruiser was scrapped in 1971.

Theories and speculations[edit]

Killed by the Soviets[edit]

In a 1990 interview Joseph Zwerkin, a former member of Soviet Naval intelligence who had moved to Israel after the breakup of the Soviet Union, claimed that the Soviets had noticed Crabb in the water and that a Soviet sniper had shot him. Official government documents regarding Crabb's disappearance are not scheduled to be released until 2057.[9]

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 the Ordzhonikidze 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.[4][10] Koltsov, 74 at the time of the interview, stated that he wanted to clear his conscience and make known exactly what happened to Crabb.[11] 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.[11] A Russian journalist from the military Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper considers Koltsov's story improbable. In particular the archive documents do not confirm that Koltsov was awarded Order of the Red Star.[12]

Captured, Brainwashed, Defected or a Double Agent[edit]

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;[13] 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.[2]

MI5 theory[edit]

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.[14] Binding stated that, following the book's publication, he was contacted by Sydney Knowles.[15] 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."[15] 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[edit]

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.[2] In support of the death by misadventure theory, Hoole noted that before disappearing on his second attempt to dive the Ordzhonikidze, Crabb had during his first attempt experienced equipment failure, which suggested that Crabb's equipment was not up to standard.[2] 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.[16]

References in popular culture[edit]

  • Crabb's time in Gibraltar is covered in the 1958 film The Silent Enemy, with Laurence Harvey portraying Crabb.
  • The 1996 novel Old Flames by John Lawton concerns the murder of a fictitious frogman with a secret life.[17]
  • Tim Binding's 2005 novel Man Overboard 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 1987 fictional account The Krushchev Objective 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 for the James Bond adventure Thunderball.
  • The frogman briefly seen in the Tintin book The Red Sea Sharks was based on a photograph of Crabb.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ UKTV History "Infamous Assassinations", episode "General Sikorski" aired 2 April 2008
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Hoole, Rob (January 2007). "The Buster Crabb Enigma". Warship World. Retrieved 10 July 2011. 
  3. ^ Andrew, Christopher. "Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5." p. 326.
  4. ^ a b Nick Webster and Claire Donnelly (17 November 2007). "Cold war spy riddle ends". Daily Mirror. Retrieved 17 November 2007. 
  5. ^ Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 1.
  6. ^ "Details on vanished 'spy' diver". BBC. 27 October 2007. Retrieved 10 July 2013. 
  7. ^ "BBC Inside Out". BBC. 19 January 2007. Retrieved 8 April 2012. 
  8. ^ Verkaik, Robert (9 November 2007). "Freedom Of Information: How the Government covered up the death of 'Buster' Crabb". London: The Independent. [dead link]
  9. ^ Socotra, Vic (25 September 2007). "The Crabb Affair". www.vicsocotra.com. Retrieved 12 July 2011. 
  10. ^ "Russian 'killed UK diver' in 1956". BBC. 16 November 2007. Retrieved 16 November 2007. 
  11. ^ a b Williams, David (16 November 2007). "Cold War mystery solved? I killed Buster Crabb says Russian frogman". Daily Mail. Retrieved 2 June 2013. 
  12. ^ "Фальшивая "Барракуда"". «Красная звезда». 27 September 2008. Retrieved 31 January 2013. 
  13. ^ See The Fake Defector by Hutton who suggests he used the name "Lev Lvovich Korablov"
  14. ^ DJ Taylor (11 June 2005). "Review: Man Overboard by Tim Binding". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 April 2012. 
  15. ^ a b "MI5 linked to Crabb death". Divemagazine.co.uk. 21 April 2006. Retrieved 8 April 2012. 
  16. ^ Hastings, Stephen (18 April 1994). "Obituary: Nicholas Elliott". The Independent. Retrieved 2 June 2013. 
  17. ^ "Old Flames by John Lawton Detailed Book Review". Allreaders.com. Retrieved 8 April 2012. 

References[edit]

External links[edit]