The Crabb Affair
This episode I get stuck into The Crabb Affair, a strange disappearance from 1956, surrounded by Cold War suspicion and government cover-ups. Who doesn’t love a good spy tale? Especially one that is as suspicious as this.
Government Documents (PDF) – These documents include the parliamentary debate mentioned and quoted in the show along with several internal communication between ministers.
Government Documents (PDF) – These documents include minutes of a secret meeting held in the Prime ministers’ office concerning Crabb and quoted in the show along with several internal communication between ministers.
Government Documents (PDF) – These are the documents concerning the documentary being made by Darlow for the BBC.
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THE CRABB AFFAIR
Commander Buster Crabb, a man awarded an OBE, nicknamed after an olympic swimmer and film star, reported to have been one of the influences on the character of James Bond and even had his likeness immortalised by Herge, making an appearance in TinTin. Yet now, his heroic and adventurous life is a footnote in obscure history papers having ended wrapped in a mystery when he disappeared in Portsmouth Harbour after inspecting the hull of a Soviet warship. Who was Commander Crabb and what did happen under the waters of Portsmouth Harbour in 1956? This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
The son of Beatrice and Hugh Crabb, Lionel Kenneth Philip Crabb was born in Streatham in the South of London on the 28th January 1909. His home life was far from glamorous and the small family lived in a fairly poor household. Matters were worsened when his father, serving in the first world war was reported as missing, presumed dead leaving his mother with the prospect of raising a son by herself. To avert this, after the end of the war, one of her relatives, Frank Jarvis moved in and took responsibility to help raise him and though they still lived a humble lifestyle, this at least ensured that Lionel Crabb had a consistent father figure at home.
He grew up restless as a teenager and attended Brighton College for only a short period before deciding that the path of academics was not for him, he left soon after enrolling and instead chose to transfer to the Naval Academy of HMS Conway. After his graduation, he spent a good portion of his twenties drifting from workplace to workplace, never quite finding a rock to anchor to or a career to satisfy his thirst for adventure. In 1939, he finally decided on a calling, answering to the promise of exotic lands and world travel, he applied to join the Royal Navy, however his eyesight was poor, particularly in his left eye and he was refused enrollment on health grounds. Seeing this as a mere setback, he instead opted to join the Merchant Navy and shortly after, with the outbreak of the second world war, he trained as a Merchant Seaman gunner. Through this new training and the outbreak of war, he was able to finally draft into the Royal Navy in 1941, he soon found, however, that even in wartime, the gears of recruitment simply turned slower and when the doctors caught up with him for a routine medical examination, his poor eyesight once again failed him. He was rejected from sea faring duty and instead wound up working in the special duties branch as a Bomb Safety Officer, assisting mine clearers with the disposal of underwater explosives. Crabbs duty in the operations was to disarm the explosives ready for safe disposal, though it was not long after he began this work that he instead chose to train as a diver, giving him a more hands on role. As one can imagine, volunteers in this area often fell far short of the recurring job openings.
In 1941, he was promoted to Temporary Lieutenant and in October of 1942, transferred to the HMS Cormorant, the British offshore base in Gibraltar to work as a Mine and Bomb Disposal Officer. During this time in Gibraltar, the Italians began using the offensive technique of sending divers into the bay to attach mines to the hulls of ships as they came to dock in Allied harbours. This was a silent and deadly technique, that was difficult to track and caused several large scale sinkings before counter measures were created. Crabb helped to build an Underwater Working Party, the job of which was to dive underwater and inspect the hulls of incoming boats for any attached mines. If any were found, they were removed and bought aboard a retrieval vessel that took the devices and saw them correctly and safely disposed. After his partner broke his ankle in the field, Crabb took sole control over the small unit. It wasn’t until the recovery of two Italian bodies that proper swim fins and breathing apparatus was requisitioned and later used by Crabb and his team mate Sydney Knowles, that any diving gear we might recognise today was actually used by the team at all, before this point, the team swam in the darkness, with little equipment aside from a pair of plimsolls, a frogman suit and rudimentary breathing apparatus. Irregardless, Crabb and his men foiled every attempt made to damage incoming ships from their groups inception until the Italian surrender one year later. Folk tales tell of a story that upon the Italian departure from war, many local dive units were taken prisoner and refused to surrender to anyone other than Crabb himself, who, it turns out, they knew well by name and admired him deeply for his bravery. Whether or not this holds any truth or is an old war story is not known, but he was recognised officially for his bravery and awarded the George Medal for gallantry and undaunted devotion to duty on the 25th January, 1944.
It was around his time in Gibraltar that Lionel Kenneth philip Crabb dropped his Christian names and started going instead simply by “Buster”, a nickname given to him by his fellow divers, taken from American Olympic Swimmer and film star Buster Crabbe (thats Crabbe with an ‘e’, for the record).
As Buster Crabb, he then spent a further 6 months in North Africa, clearing newly liberated ports from the German Afrika Korps, before transferring to HMS Fabius, in Taranto Italy, he was enlisted as the principal diving officer for Northern Italy in May of 1945 where he assisted in mine clearance for various ports, including Venice and in August, several months after the end of the second world war in Europe, he was drafted to work in Palestine to help clear ports of mines placed by Zionist rebels. For his part in the war, he was awarded an OBE and made an Officer of the most excellent Order of the british Empire, one of the highest ranked British honours for Chivalry, on the 11th December, 1945. On the 30th April 1948, he was released from the Royal Navy and placed on the reserves list with the rank of Temporary Acting Lieutenant Commander.
As Peacetime settled in across Europe, Crabbs life was none the less adventurous. He continued to work as a diver taking on diverse jobs, from locating and investigating wrecks of the Spanish Armada, to helping to scout a suitable location for an underwater discharge pipe for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, a mission that saw him actively re-employed by the Navy and promoted to rank of Lieutenant Commander.. He was twice more recalled by the Royal Navy, taking on missions to investigate wrecks of Submarines, the HMS Truculent and HMS Affray in 1950 and 1951 respectively and saw too his final promotion to the rank of Commander. In March of 1952, he married Margaret Elaine Player, though the couples relationship was short lived and the pair separated a year later and officially divorced by December of 1953.
Its fairly safe to say that Commander Buster Crabbs life had, up until this point been anything but boring, however, in 1955, this took a further step, when he was employed by the Admiralty to investigate the hull of the Soviet Cruise-ship Sverdlov. He teamed up with his old dive mate Sydney Knowles and the pair carried out the mission, named Operation Claret, shrouded in relative secrecy in order to confirm details of a new technology that focused around an inventive propeller design allowing the ship to maintain maneuverability despite its large size. The mission was a success and the pair were able to confirm that the ships design included a second, deployable propellor that could extend and serve in aiding it’s turning ability.
Europe was at peace and the time had come for Crabb to finally retire. Iin 1955, aged 46 years old, the Royal navy dispatched him from active duty, but Operation Claret hinted at a Cold War that was settling in and becoming deeply entrenched. Within this murky atmosphere of espionage and propaganda, he was to be called upon to dive for his country one last time. The mysterious incident that would become known as “The Crabb Affair” approached on the horizon.
Retirement was tiresome for Crabb. He took to smoking and drinking heavily, parading streets late at night with a silver sword stick, complete with a pommel set with the engraving of a crab.One account of him during this time spoke of him as:
“With his friends, a most pleasant and lively individual.”
Leaving one to speculate on the usage of the term “lively”. He lived in a flat in london, worked in the furniture trade and made plans to remarry his new girlfriend Pat Rose. By 1956, life was looking perfectly ordinary by Crabbs standards, however things were about to change. The Russians were coming to Britain and there were men working in the shadows, that had plans for Crabb.
On the 18th April, 1956, Soviet Communist Party Leader Nikita Khrushchev and his deputy, Nikolai Bulganin were due to arrive in Portsmouth Harbour aboard the Soviet cruiser the Ordzhonikidze, sister ship to the Sverdlov. It was a diplomatic mission with the pair arranging talks with the british prime Minister, Anthony Eden. Despite express orders to undertake no such missions, MI6, the British Secret Service had eyes on the Ordzhonikidze and Commander Crabb was, as story tells it, to be just the man for the job.
On the 17th April, Crabb checked in to the Sally Port Inn Hotel in Portsmouth with a second man going by the name of Mr Smith. They signed the register, took two rooms and carried two bags. Crabbs room was in the front of the Hotel, overlooking the Harbour itself. On that evening, neither men ate dinner in the Hotel, Crabb went out for an hour or so for a drink, but returned to his room early that night. The following morning Crabb took Breakfast in the Hotel, went out and returned for dinner, all the while, Mr Smith had been conspicuous in his absence. That same day the Ordzunhikizhe had arrived, mooring in the VIP berth of the Portsmouth Naval Base, flanked by two Soviet destroyers, Sovershenniy and Smotryski casting a dominant shadow over the cold water of early spring. As the sun rose in the early hours of the morning on the 19th April, Crabb left the hotel long before breakfast and at 7am, with the aid of 3 other men, one of which helped him dress in his suit and gear up, he dropped into the steel cold water of the Harbour 80 yards from the Soviet cruiser and swam down to inspect the Hull.
Commander Buster Crabb never resurfaced.
At midday, Mr Smith arrived at the reception of the Sally Port Inn carrying both his and Commander Crabbs bags. He checked the two men out of the hotel and settled the bill for both rooms in cash.
On the 21st April, a police officer appeared in the reception of the Sally Port Inn Hotel and tore out four pages of the hotels register for the beginning of the month of April, pages that naturally included both Smith and Crabbs stay. The officer threatened the Hotel owner that if he spoke of the scene or resisted in any way, he would be charged under the official secrets act and on the 29th April, the Admiralty released an internal document stating that if any questions arose in the media concerning Commander Crabbs disappearance, they should answer that he had gone missing, presumed dead, whilst testing out experimental diving gear for the Navy in nearby Stokes Bay, three miles West along the coast from Portsmouth.
This bizzare string of happenings may well have been the end of the whole affair, however much to the embarrassment of the British Government, it was just the beginning.
Aftermath & Funeral
On the 4th May, Moscow sent a public communication to the British government stating that they had seen a British diver approach their ships whilst docked in Portsmouth, a matter of which they were very dissatisfied and demanded an explanation. This communication had a two-fold effect, firstly, the British press leapt on the story and created a media storm around the affair. Soon the front pages of newspapers were filled with dramatic headlines and articles were printed full of speculation on Crabbs disappearance. This had the knock on effect of prompting the opposition government to call out Prime Minister Eden during parliament and demand answers. Eden responded with the statement to the house of commons that:
“Whilst it is the practice for ministers to accept responsibility, I think it is necessary in the special circumstances of this case to make it clear that what was done, was done without the authority or knowledge of Her Majesty’s Ministers. Appropriate disciplinary steps are being taken.”
And refused to elaborate on the matter, stating that:
“It would not be in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which Commander Crabb is presumed to have met his death”
Unfortunately for Eden, many saw this as vague and deflectionary and of a government aiming to distance itself from any responsibility. Indeed the reply from the British government to Moscow read exactly as such:
“The Frogman, who was reported in the Soviet note, was discovered from the Soviet ships swimming between the Soviet destroyers, was to all appearances Commander Crabb. His presence in the vicinity of the destroyers occurred without any permission whatever, and her Majesty’s Government express their regret for this incident.”
Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the opposition party in Britain challenged Eden, by saying that by keeping quiet on the matter, the press and public would assume Crabb was a spy and run the risk of sensationalising reports, Eden simply replied:
“You are entitled to put any wording you like upon which I have said.”
Gaitskill however, would not allow the matter to lye and in a parliamentary debate on the 14th of May, known now to the public through a transcript of the session obtained via the freedom of information act, the affair was once again brought to the fore, with the primary concern seemingly questioning to what level of control the government held over the British Secret Service. Eden had publicly stated that the Soviet ships were to be guarded heavily by the admiralty during their stay in Portsmouth and that they shall be safe from any such missions. Gaitskill once again questioned Eden, asking:
“If it were the admiralites responsibility to guard these vessels, how was it that commander Crabb, if it was he, was able to approach these vessels? One is bound to ask the question: was the security guard very, very inadequate or was the guard in the secret of Commander Crabbs exploit?”
He then pressed further by asking on what grounds a police officer could remove pages from a hotels register and threaten the enactment of the secrets act for any indiscretion on the part of the owner, who in fact, had every right to object, as the keeping of guests records was the legal obligation of every hotel owner and inn keep. Eden shut the debate down sternly by parroting the line that the circumstances of Crabbs death would not serve the public interest and could further jeopardise international relations.
Despite the rampant speculation in the press and the heavy pressing for information from the opposition, the disappearance of Crabb eventually did fade away in the background of the Cold War. With no facts and little else but a story of a diver spotted near the Soviet ships, the press eased off on the story. That was until 14 months later, when on the 9th June 1957, John Randall and his two hands were out fishing near Pilsey Island, a small peninsula off Chichester Harbour, 8 miles East of Portsmouth. They spotted something floating in the water. Unsure of what it may be, and supposing at first that it could be a tractor tire, the men drew the boat nearer and hooked the object, pulling it aboard and upon doing so, immediately recognised it as the body of a human male. The body was wearing a divers outfit, but had had the head and both hands removed and appeared to have been in the water for some time. The men contacted a nearby RAF naval base, who in turn contacted the authorities and upon meeting with the ship, took the body to the Portsmouth Mortuary.
On the 11th June, Sydney Knowles, Crabbs mother Beatrice, his ex-wife and current fiance were all called upon to ID the body of the diver. Both his mother and Knowles, who inspected the bodies legs for scars which he failed to find and that he knew to be a feature of Crabbs right thigh and left knee, both categorically stated the body to not be that of Buster Crabb and refused to identify it as such. His ex-wife mentioned that Crabbs feet:
“Were small and his big toes very unusual, they appeared to be what she thought were hammer toes and were raised high of the ground”
Despite these features, she too was unable to give a positive identification of the body and nor could his fiancee Pat Rose. During the lead up to the inquest, the home office sent several communications to the Coroner requesting him to not ask any potentially difficult questions nor to call upon any witnesses attached with the admiralty that they would prefer remained out of the whole proceeding.
An inquest eventually was held and immediately adjourned, allowing more time for a positive identification. It was reseated on the 26th June, when the Pathologist cited evidence of small feet and a similar suit to that of which Crabb was known to be wearing on the day of his dive to the Ordzhonikidze, allowing for a positive ID. The suit was of an unusual design known to be favoured by Crabb and had a neck seal rather than a full hood, although identifying serial numbers were missing. When contacted, the company who designed and made the suit said that around fifteen of the suits had been purchased since the designs inception in January of 1955 and October when they supplied Crabb with his own. Despite Sydney Knowles failing to find any such scars, evidence was also given by the pathologist, the same who originally stated that no such marks had been found, of a scar apparently found after reexamination on the 14th June, on the bodies right knee. These elements were enough for the coroner to be satisfied the body was that of Commander Crabb and revised the outcome to reflect as such, stating that “A sufficient chain of coincidences had been established” for a positive identification. The cause of death, however, was deemed as “Not Ascertainable”.
Crabbs funeral was held without military honours on the 5th July, 1951 at the Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth. He was buried with his silver sword stick in a grave that was marked with a headstone lacking both Crabbs Christian name and Date of Death. His mother received an unexplained sum of £100 from the admiralty, however, right up until her death, refused to believe that the body buried on the site was that of her son, Lionel Buster Crabb.
In 1972, a producer named David Darlow, who intended to make a documentary for the BBC centering on Buster Crabb, his life and detailing various theories on his disappearance, contacted the cabinet office in an attempt to gain cooperation and reassurance for his sources that they would not fall foul of any complications by taking part in the program. The government were, safe to say, not keen on the idea one bit. The official line from the government, written in a series of communications, many of which were stamped as secret and filed away until they were released in 2005, was to in the first, not offer any cooperation on the making of the program whatsoever. After Darlow committed to continue making the program, discussion amongst the officials turned instead to the prospect of dissuading the producer to make the program at all. Through a difficult back and forth both with Darlow and amongst several government, intelligence and security service officials, the government succeeded in convincing Darlow to submit his script for approval before committing to make the program. At the same time, communications amongst the security officials spoke of how they should not appear to make much of a fuss about the affair, the less chance that Darlow might feel he has a real story and discussed the pros and cons of stamping out the program altogether from a higher level. At one stage, Darlow asked for clearance on a source, which was rejected outright, the security services then tracked down the source and “dissuaded” him from appearing on the program. Eventually, Darlow scrapped the program, and no documentary was ever made.
With so little hard facts surrounding Crabbs disappearance and so much speculation rife in the media, it is no surprise that the theories surrounding the affair are numerous, ranging from the banal everyday, to extreme espionage. The state of the body too, has helped matters on the speculation front, with many questioning just whose body it was. Indeed, Jim Knight, one of the RAF men working on the day the body was discovered and whom was a first responder to the incident, said on the state of the decomposition that:
“we members of the Marine section discussed the incident, none of us could see how the body was identified.”
Ten years after the whole affair, a skull, half buried in sand, was dug up in chichester harbour. Though the skull was never formally identified as that of Crabb, the pathologist claimed that it had been buried for around 10 years, just long enough to fit it to the timeline of Buster Crabbs disappearance and many have speculated it was the missing head of the body discovered and now buried in Milton Cemetery.
And there are further curious details too, his landlady, Miss Ann Francis Thomas said that in April of 1956, Crabb told her he would be away for a few days on business and then on the 17th, one day before he left for Portsmouth, he told her that he was leaving his residence for good. This would of course, suggest that Crabb never expected to return from his mission. With an apparent ongoing government cover-up and so many unanswered details, it’s no surprise that theories here run wild.
Lack of fitness / Equipment malfunction
One of the most down to earth theories suggests that at 46 years of age and with a history of heavy drinking and smoking, Crabb simply succumbed to his own lack of fitness and drowned in the water or could even have had an equipment malfunction. This theory ignores any speculation on the body that was eventually found however and ignores the fact that Crabb was a highly experienced diver and would have known his own limitations very well.
Killed by Russians
Probably the second most down to earth theory is that Crabb was killed by Russians who caught him spying on the ship. This theory has even been corroborated by the now 80 year old, ex Soviet Navy frogman named Eduard Kolstov, when in 2007 he came out publicly in a Russian language documentary, claiming to have been the man who killed Crabb, cutting his throat when he caught him placing a mine. In the documentary he displays a Red Star medal he claimed he was secretly awarded for his deed and a dagger that he claims to have used to kill Crabb. He told the documentary crew:
“I saw a silhouette of a diver in a light frogman suit who was fiddling with something at the starboard, next to the ship’s ammunition stores. I swam closer and saw that he was fixing a mine.”
The most questionable detail to this story however, is that Crabb was apparently fixing a mine to the ship, which seems highly dubious. There were never, as far as evidence suggests, any plans to actually damage the boat, nor would it have made any sense in a period of time when Anglo-Russian relations were trying to be repaired, rather than destroyed. Indeed, the whole point of the visit was for this express purpose, so it would seem rather counter-active to then blow the Russian ship up, whilst it docked in Portsmouth harbour.
There have also been other reports, Joseph Zwerkin, a Soviet intelligence officer, claimed in 1990 that a sniper saw Crabb approach the ship and shot him in the head when he surfaced.
In 2015, newly declassified cabinet office documents revealed that the British Government themselves feared Crabb had been killed by the Soviets:
“At this stage, the possible explanations for Crabb’s loss seemed to be the following: (a) that he had been observed by the Russians and taken aboard alive; (b) that he had been destroyed by Russian counter measures and that his body was either (i) aboard the Russian ship or (ii) still in the water; (c) that he had been the victim of a natural mishap and that his body was still in the water.”
The main concern at the time was that the body would be used as a propaganda tool for the Soviets and that taking him alive would have been unlikely due to the fuss involved, which they suggested would have been spotted.
MI5 Killed him / Defection
In a 2006 article published in the Mail on Sunday, author Tim Binding claimed to have met with Sydney Knowles who suggested to him that the MI5 themselves killed Crabb and that the operation to dive beneath the Soviet cruiser was simply a cover for the job. The theory relies on the concept that Crabb was planning to defect to the Soviet Union, the MI5 caught wind of this plan through Knowles himself and fearing an embarrassment and wishing to deny the Soviet Union a propaganda tool in the form of Crabb, a prominent war hero, set up the mission as cover. When he dived beneath the water, he was then killed by a British agent and a coverup was planned, knowing that the blame would at worst fall on a diplomatic bungle. This theory gets more complicated, when Knowles claims that he was ordered to identify the body and merely went along with the deception, believing Crabb to have either defected or been sent on the mission to be captured and installed in the Soviet Union as a double agent. Of course, this falls flat, as Knowles did not go along with any deception, in fact, he expressly stated the body was not identifiable as Crabb. On the other hand, there are some who discard the second half of Knowles story and believe the body was that of Crabb and was mutilated in order to cover up his identity.
On the flipside of this theory, is that the MI6 actually asked Crabb to defect so that he could work in the Soviet Union as a double Agent. The mission was a coverup and excuse to allow Crabb to be captured and taken to the Soviet Union. The theory claims he did in fact defect successfully, was alive and well and had joined the Soviet Navy, living under the new name of First Lieutenant Lev Korablov. This story was first put forward when The Western Daily Press ran an article with the headline “Diver lives, says ex-fiancee, buster crabb sensation, Navy spy in coming home riddle”, published on september 14th, 1974. The article contained an interview with Pat Rose, Crabbs fiance at the time of his disappearance who claimed amongst other things, that she had had regular contact with Crabb:
“Mrs Rose told me of secret meetings when strangers with messages about commander Crabb would arrive at her home, go up to her in the street, or suddenly sit next to her on trains.”
The story goes on:
“Commander Crabb is living a reasonably happy life as first lieutenant Lev Korablov of the Red Navy, but as an abandoned British Double Agent he is still hoping for repatriation.”
Whatever finally happened to Crabb, it is clear there was a massive government cover up operation in place to obfuscate the facts, for what reason however, the truth is still an unknown. It is easy to state that the British government were afraid of damaging Russian relations, however, in the parliamentary papers discussions on this exact point are brought up, with most members of the government agreeing that it would have had little effect on international relations:
“I do not think that the russians have the right, nbor are they likely to object even in their hearts to what has happened.”
Said one government official during the debate,
“This unfortunate episode is, therefore, not in the least likely in any way to impair the value of the Russian visit to this country.”
Indeed, the casual attitudes in the debate concerning the use of spies is very telling. Everyone appears to agree that every country spies on one another, so that in fact, the actual capturing of an agent was never a shock or surprise, merely a tool that could be used for propaganda, hence Moscow releasing publicly the discovery of divers sighted around the Ordzhonikidze in the first place.
The level of cover up however, seems extreme in this case, why were such lengths taken to deter a documentary being made almost twenty years after the affair? This government censorship in the media was of an extreme level that if caught, could have been incredibly embarrassing. The scale of the whole thing seems to be an element that is utterly baffling and with no solid truths to the mystery forthcoming, hints at something very suspicious indeed.
Most of the government papers and documents concerning the Crabb affair on both Soviet and British sides are either lost, damaged or locked away until 2057 and in the vacuum of information, the theories continue. As one government minister put it during the Crabb debate:
“we realise the need for a secret service and we realise that the members of that service have to go about their work in queer ways”
As far as Crabb is concerned, whether he is alive or dead, if he defected, or was sent to Russia, we may not know for at least another 40 years. If he is truly not dead, then where is he and who was the body in the water and who put him there? If he is alive, then what exactly has he been doing and just whose side has he been on?