(First published in the Jan/Feb 2007 issue of Warship World)



Cdr Lionel Buster Crabb OBE GM RNVR

Cdr Lionel 'Buster' Crabb OBE GM RNVR


It is fifty years since the Admiralty announced that the wartime diving hero Commander Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb OBE GM RNVR was presumed dead after failing to return from trials of underwater apparatus in Stokes Bay in the Solent.  Only after considerable press speculation and political pressure did it emerge that he had failed to reappear after diving under the hull of the Soviet cruiser ORDZHONIKIDZE during her visit to Portsmouth in April 1956 at the height of the Cold War.  Despite the release of previously secret material by the National Archives, some as recently as October 2006, mystery and controversy continue to surround Crabb’s fate.  In fact, there has been so much conjecture that it is difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction.  It has been hinted that official documents telling the whole story will not be released until 2057, a century after the event.


Lionel Kenneth Philip Crabb was born in lowly circumstances on 28 January 1909 in Streatham, London.  Between 1922 and 1924, he was a cadet in HMS CONWAY, the Mercantile Marine Service Associations School ship, and subsequently served in the Merchant Navy.  At the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the Army as a Gunner but transferred to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) where he was trained as a Bomb Safety Officer (BSO) and promoted to Temporary Lieutenant (Special Branch) on 7 November 1941.


Crabb certainly became a wartime hero.  In October 1942, he was appointed to HMS CORMORANT, the shore base at Gibraltar, as the Mine and Bomb Disposal officer.  Since July 1942, members of the Italian Tenth Light Flotilla (Decima MAS) underwater forces had been operating Maiale (pig) human torpedoes clandestinely from the interned Italian tanker OLTERRA, berthed across the bay in Algeciras, to lay explosive warheads and place limpet mines on the hulls of Allied ships anchored off Gibraltar.  As depicted in the 1958 film ‘The Silent Enemy’ starring Laurence Harvey, an Underwater Working Party had been formed to counteract this threat under Lieutenant Bill Bailey RNVR, an electrical specialist who had been awarded the George Medal on 29 December 1942.  Equipped with the rudimentary Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus (DSEA) using oxygen, Bailey and Leading Diver (later Acting Petty Officer) David Bell used breast stroke and wore overalls and plimsolls for underwater work.  Swim fins had not yet been introduced into the Royal Navy although they were used by the Italians.


An inveterate smoker with a penchant for scotch with beer chasers, Crabb avoided exercise and was only just able to swim three lengths of a swimming pool.  However, he insisted on learning to dive so that he could participate in the search for underwater explosive devices and undertake their disposal.  He eventually ended up commanding a much expanded diving team but also implemented other countermeasures including patrol craft dropping explosive charges in the water if they saw anything suspicious.  During an attack on 7 December 1942, two of the Italian frogmen (Lieutenant Licio Visintini and Petty Officer Giovanni Magro) died after their Maiale came under fire from the defenders.  Their bodies were recovered a few days later and their swim fins were then used by Crabb and one of his divers, Sydney Knowles.  The Italians continued their underwater attacks on shipping anchored off Gibraltar until August 1943, a month before signing an armistice with the Allies.  For their services, Crabb and Bell were each awarded the George Medal on 25 January 1944. 


In August 1944, Crabb was sent to North Africa to assist Commander Roger Lewis (awarded the DSO for helping Cdr John Ouvry render safe the first German magnetic mine at Shoeburyness in November 1939) to clear the newly liberated ports of North Africa following the defeat of the German Afrika Korps.  In May 1945, he was appointed as the Principal Diving Officer Northern Italy at HMS FABIUS, the shore base at Taranto, and assisted in the clearance of the ports of Leghorn, Livorno and Venice which had been evacuated by the retreating Germans.  In August 1945, he was sent to Palestine to deal with Zionist underwater explosive devices and was awarded the OBE on 11 December 1945 for the wind-up of operations in Europe.  According to official sources, he was released from the RNVR on 30 April 1948 as a Temporary Acting Lieutenant Commander but was subsequently attached to the Diving Support Vessel HMS RECLAIM off Malta in the Spring of 1949 to take underwater photographs of propeller cavitation produced by the cruiser HMS AMPHION.  He achieved this while clinging to a danbuoy mooring as AMPHION steamed past him unnervingly close at various speeds.  Unverified sources also report him as having been involved in surveying the site of a discharge pipe from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston.


According to official sources, Crabb was re-employed on the Active List on 12 October 1951 in the substantive rank of Lieutenant Commander and appointed to HMS VERNON as a ‘Diving Trials Officer’ but unverified sources state that he had dived in January of the previous year on the submarine HMS TRUCULENT, sunk with all hands in the Thames Estuary.  He certainly delivered a newly developed underwater television camera to HMS RECLAIM in April 1951 to assist in her inspection of the sunken submarine HMS AFFRAY on the edge of the Hurd Deep and this may account for the confusion.  On 15 March 1952, he married Margaret Elaine Player, a typist/barmaid from Dover, but they only lived together until April 1953 and were divorced in December 1953. 


On 30 June 1952, Crabb was promoted to Commander and became head of the Experimental Clearance Diving Team based at the Underwater Countermeasures Weapons Establishment (UCWE) at West Leigh House, Havant just north of Portsmouth but he was not a popular choice.  According to Lieutenant Commander Gordon Gutteridge, over whose head he had been appointed, Crabb “distrusted scientists and avoided all things scientific.” 


Unverified sources report Crabb as having undertaken a covert mission in the Suez Canal in 1953.  During the summer of 1954, he and Sydney Knowles (one of his wartime naval divers at Gibraltar and in Italy) were engaged by the Duke of Argyll in an unsuccessful attempt, under the overall direction of Rear Admiral Patrick Vivian McLaughlin CB DSO (Senior Naval Member and President Ordnance Board until 1953), to locate and salvage a Spanish galleon, believed to be the SAN JUAN BAPTISTE, in Tobermory Bay.  Interestingly, a group of 27 photographs documenting this expedition was sold at auction for £90 in Edinburgh in May 2005.  Naval divers from HMS VERNON had undertaken a similar expedition in 1950 but had only recovered a few artefacts.  It is intriguing that a magazine’s account of this previous expedition did not divulge the names of the individuals involved “for security reasons”.  According to official records, Crabb was finally released from active service on 8 April 1955 although he “remained attached to the RNVR so that he could be re-called if necessary”.


In his tweed suit and pork pie hat, Crabb remained a familiar, ostentatious figure around the Portsmouth area although he normally resided in a flat in London.  His penchant for alcohol remained undiminished.  In Rear Admiral Edmund Nicholas 'Nico' Poland’s book, The Torpedomen, Lieutenant Commander Gordon Gutteridge is quoted as saying of him:


“He remained … a diver of enormous experience with a singular ability to endure discomfort, but not given to long, hard slogs underwater.  His lack of fear was unquestioned but his assessment of experimental equipment and techniques bordered on the bizarre.  By now his personality, behaviour and dress were set in stone; the quintessentially, curmudgeonly but kindly bantam cock, complete with swordstick with a silver engraved crab on the knob.  Certainly he was, with his friends, a most pleasant and lively individual.”


In October 1955, Sydney Knowles claims to have been involved with Crabb in a covert night diving mission to inspect the underwater fittings of the Soviet cruiser SVERDLOV when she visited Portsmouth in company with the cruiser ALEXANDER SEVAROV and the destroyers SOVERSHENNY, SMOTRYASHCHY, SMETLIVY and SPOSOBIRY (simultaneously, the light fleet carrier HMS TRIUMPH (with the CinC Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Michael Denny GCB, CBE, DSO embarked), the fast minelayer HMS APOLLO and the destroyers HMS DECOY, HMS DIANA, HMS CHEVRON and HMS CHIEFTAIN were visiting Leningrad). 


We now come to the shadowy events surrounding Crabb’s disappearance.  On 18 April 1956, the Soviet cruiser ORDZHONIKIDZE, in company with the destroyers SOVERSHENNY and SMOTRYASCHY, arrived in Portsmouth Naval Base and berthed on South Railway Jetty.  This is the VIP berth immediately in front of the distinctive Semaphore Tower.  ORDZHONIKIDZE carried the Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev and Premier Nikolai Bulganin for talks in London with the Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden.


The previous day, Crabb and someone calling himself ‘Smith’ had booked into the Sally Port Hotel in Old Portsmouth.  Unverified sources said ‘Smith’ was actually a young Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) agent called Teddy Davies, Crabb’s MI6 handler, but he was subsequently revealed to be MI6 agent Bernard Smith who had booked in using his and Crabb's real names.  According to Admiral Poland’s book, Crabb and Smith had a meeting at the hotel with the Chief Constable, Mr A C West, who assigned Superintendent Jack Lamport as Crabb’s police liaison officer.  That afternoon of the 17th, Crabb had tea with the Commander of HMS VERNON.  In the evening, he met Lieutenant George ‘Franky’ Franklin, a diving officer at HMS VERNON, in a pub and asked him to act as his diving tender and dresser for a dive he was undertaking.  According to Franklin, Crabb said this was in a private capacity and under no circumstances was he to inform any responsible Naval authority.


At some stage, Franklin appropriated a launch from VERNON’s diving training ship, HMS DEEPWATER, and took it to the boat pound immediately south of South Railway Jetty.  By the following afternoon, the Soviet ships had arrived.  Crabb, assisted by Franklin, made his first dive from the launch that same day.  During high water at around 1730, he entered the water about 80 yards from where the Soviet ships were berthed, but became trapped in the jetty pilings and aborted the dive after only 20 minutes.  Early the next morning, on 19 April, Crabb accompanied Franklin, and possibly Smith and one or more police officers, to the launch where Franklin helped him to dress.  He entered the water at around 0700 but returned 20 minutes later after experiencing some difficulty with his equipment.  After a while, he returned to the water and was never seen alive again by anyone British.


When Crabb failed to reappear, a cover-up operation was initiated almost immediately.  Smith checked out of the Sally Port hotel taking Crabb’s baggage with him.  A few days later, the police removed four pages of the Sally Port Hotel’s register but not before journalists had already looked at it.  The removal of the pages aroused their suspicions even more.  Franklin was sent on leave with instructions not to talk about the incident to anyone.  It transpired that Crabb had been spotted by one of the Soviet ships and, Khrushchev made a bantering reference to the incident at a dinner party with Eden.  Being unaware of the spying mission, Eden was puzzled until briefed on events the following day.  The Soviets subsequently registered a diplomatic protest.


As the Navy had not been officially involved, and Crabb was no longer on its books, the Admiralty had difficulty in producing any credible explanation for Crabb’s disappearance without raising even more questions.  Nevertheless, on 27 April, Rear Admiral J G T Inglis OBE, the Director of Naval Intelligence, instructed the Admiralty to announce, but only if pressed, that Crabb had been specially employed in connection with trials of certain underwater apparatus; he had not returned from a test dive in Stokes Bay on 19 April and must be presumed drowned.  This statement contradicted the known facts so blatantly that the Prime Minister was taken to task for it in Parliament on 14 May.  Sir Anthony Eden tried to dismiss the whole matter by saying, “It would not be in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which Commander Crabb is presumed to have met his death.”  He then added mysteriously, “I think it necessary, in the special circumstances of this case, to make it clear that what was done was done without the authority or the knowledge of Her Majesty's Ministers.  Appropriate disciplinary steps are being taken.”  The incident certainly caused the UK Government of the day, and the intelligence services, considerable embarrassment.  It is probably no coincidence that MI6’s Director, Major General Sir John Sinclair, was relieved by MI5’s Sir Dick White in 1956.


On 9 June 1957, 14 months after Crabb’s disappearance, two fishermen discovered a body floating in the water off Pilsey in Chichester Harbour, 14 miles to the east of Portsmouth.  The body, dressed in a distinctive Pirelli two-piece diving suit, was missing its head and hands and some of the chest.  In view of the body’s lengthy immersion in the water, there was nothing particularly sinister in this.  On 11 June, Lieutenant Commander William McLanachan, a diving officer from VERNON, and Crabb’s ex-wife were called upon to identify the remains.  The physical stature and other characteristics including body hair colour plus the Admiralty Pattern swim fins, two-piece diving suit (Pirelli purchased from Heinke of Chichester) and clothing beneath all matched Crabb’s on the day he disappeared.  Sydney Knowles was asked to identify Crabb’s feet from a photograph showing his ‘hammer toes’ but was unable to provide positive confirmation.  At an inquest held on 29 June 1957, the Coroner accepted the body was Crabb’s and recorded an open verdict.


In the intervening years, there have been several other theories about the circumstances of Crabb’s disappearance ranging from allegations that he had been working for the CIA to others that he had defected to the Russians and was living under an alias in Moscow.  Patricia Rose, who described herself as Crabb’s fiancée at the time of his disappearance, even claimed in a September 1974 newspaper interview that he was a double agent training Russian frogmen in the Black Sea but had passed her a message saying he wanted to return to Britain. 


As to the manner of Crabb’s death, it seems most likely that Crabb succumbed to oxygen poisoning or possibly carbon dioxide poisoning during his dive as a result of his exertions.  Combined with his unfit state, this led to unconsciousness and death by drowning.  Other unverified sources state that he was shot in the head by a Russian using a small calibre weapon when he surfaced between the destroyers.  Even a South African clairvoyant got in on the act by writing to the Admiralty in January 1975 to say he/she had been possessed by Crabb as he relived being sucked into an underwater compartment and suffocated before his heavily chained body was deposited in the sea about 14 miles north of Portsmouth. 


Most recently, a fictionalised account of Crabb's life, called ‘Man Overboard’, was published in 2005.  On 26 March 2006, The Mail On Sunday published an article by its author, Tim Binding, entitled ‘Buster Crabb was murdered - by MI5’.  In this, Binding wrote that Sydney Knowles had contacted him after his book had been published to tell him that MI5 knew Crabb intended defecting to the USSR and had arranged the mission under the ORDZHONIKIDZE specifically to have him eliminated.  Knowles alleged that he was ordered by MI5 to identify the body found in Chichester Harbour as Crabb although it was definitely not Crabb.  Knowles also alleged that his life was threatened in Torremolinos in 1989 while he was in discussion with a biographer.


One thing is for certain.  This story will continue to fascinate the British public for many years to come.


Back to Top

Back to Dit Box