Legends Never Die. The name’s Crabb – Buster Crabb

By Judy Ann Newton

Diving the Cumberland

Legends need specific elements to survive. You have to have a hero, a plot, intrigue, subterfuge, mystery and danger. But the one element that turns a myth into a legend is the unresolved ending. Based on those criteria, the story of Commander Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb would rank as a super legend.

Buster Crabb was already a living legend as the most famous British frogman of his day by 1956. He joined the Royal Navy in 1941 and was assigned to a mine and bomb disposal until in Gibraltar. His duty was to disarm limpet mines attached to the hulls of Allied ships by Italian divers. In search of more adventure, Crabb learned to dive and quickly received the George Medal and promotion to Lieutenant Commander for his heroic efforts in underwater bomb removal. In 1943, as the Principal Diving Officer for Northern Italy, Crabb earned an OBE for clearing the mines in the ports of Livorno and Venice.

After the war, Crabb led an underwater explosives disposal team in Palestine, removing mines placed by Jewish rebels. The Navy demobilized Crabb in 1947 and this is where the beginning of the real legend begins. Diving-for-hire in the private sector led him back to work for the Royal Navy, contracted to investigate the downed submarines

HMS Truculent


HMS Affray

. In 1955 clandestine tasks for the admiralty had Crabb spying on the hull of the Soviet ship,


The superior manoeuverability of the ship was deemed a mystery and a threat. After successfully completing the mission, Crabb was forced into retirement at the age of 46. However, the Navy Lists of 1955 and 1956 record he is in the Navy and promoted: ‘Commander (Special Branch) LKP Crabb, RNVR, GM, OBE,

HMS Vernon


Retirement did not include puttering around in the garden and Crabb frequently disappeared to Portsmouth Harbour and ‘diving jobs for military intelligence.’ In April 1956, MI6 recruited Crabb for a mission that would resound for the next 50 years.

In April 1956 Crabb left a note for his Mother that he was off to do ‘a little job in Portsmouth,’ don’t worry and destroy this letter. On 17 April Crabb and a man registered only as Mr Smith, checked into the Sallyport Hotel, Portsmouth. On the following day, the Soviet warship,


, arrived in Portsmouth Harbour ferrying USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev and his deputy, Nikolai Bulganin, on a good-will mission.

There were no reported sightings of Crabb on 18 April by the hotel staff or friends. On the morning of the 19th, Mr. Smith paid the bills for both men and left with Crabb’s luggage in hand, neither to be seen again.

Family and friends were instructed to ‘keep quiet.’ But the legend had been spawned and could not be suppressed. Recalling his previous spy mission to view the hull of the


, it was only a minor effort for colleagues to conclude that Crabb had been on a similar operation to investigate the


. A Soviet assistant naval attaché announced that a watchman had seen a frogman come to the surface in the harbour about 7:30am, but assumed there was nothing that could be done about it as the ship was in British waters. Shortly after mooring, they had deployed a crew of Soviet frogmen into the waters surrounding the



Now the newspapers were ripe with the scent of fresh blood, the British government was forced to make a statement, but not before an operative from the Criminal Investigation Unit tore out the records of his registration from the hotel’s books. Ten days after Crabb’s disappearance, the British Admiralty tersely announced that while on a special assignment ‘in connection with trials of certain underwater apparatus,’ Crabb was ‘missing and presumed drowned.’

As Moscow let loose with charges of ‘shameful espionage,’ the Foreign Office again repeated Crabb’s task was to test dive gear but added a cryptic note to the message: ‘His presence in the vicinity of the destroyers occurred without any permission whatever, and Her Majesty’s Government express their regret at the incident.’

Almost a year later, a corpse in a frogman suit washed ashore in Chichester Creek, 12 miles north of Portsmouth Harbour. The hands and head had been cut off but the body was presumed to be Commander Crabb based on a similar scar on the left knee and the Italian style dive suit. The body was buried without an official ceremony, but the story would not lay to rest.

In 1959, a book based on a Soviet file detailed the capture, interrogation and imprisonment of Crabb. It also revealed how Crabb had supposedly joined the Soviet Navy as Lvev Lvovich Korablov, teaching Soviet frogmen. The subject of the fate of Commander Crabb continued to surface with great regularity as theories abounded through the years. Had he been freelancing for the American CIA? Had the Soviets detected him and killed him or had they captured and imprisoned him in Lefortowo prison with a prison number 147 where he was brainwashed into serving the Soviet Navy? Had he been killed by a secret Soviet underwater weapon that he discovered on his mission? Was he in the Soviet Special Task Underwater Operational Command in the Black Sea Fleet or had MI6 arranged a clever defection to plant Crabb as a double agent? Had Crabb become a liability and killed on the orders of the British secret service? Or did the Admiralty report the truth and Crabb’s dive gear had been at fault?

In a 1990 interview with Joseph Zwerkin, former member of Soviet Naval intelligence, stated that Crabb had been seen in the water when he surfaced beside the


and a Soviet sniper had shot him.

The release of secret files to the National Archives in August 2005 brought the Crabb Affair back to the surface. The Cold War papers reveal that Crabb was not the only diver to covertly eye the


in Portsmouth harbour that evening. This would be the first official confirmation of a second team from the Royal Navy attempting to reconnoiter the vessel.

The papers also reveal Government attempts to halt a 1970s BBC documentary of the incident. A note to Prime Minister Edward Heath, notated ‘

Secret – UK Eyes Alpha

’, Cabinet Secretary Sir Burke Trend stated: ‘The BBC now know that, in addition to the operation by Crabb, a separate diving operation was planned by the Royal Navy against the Russian cruiser. They have also got wind of the fact this second operation, although officially called off, nevertheless took place as an unofficial enterprise’.

The BBC story was sourced by one of the divers involved. The documentary would’ve related how the operation beneath the


turned into a fiasco after the Russians spotted a diver in the harbour and then he (Crabb) failed to return. The declassified papers only comment that: ‘The Ministry of Defence has so far been unable to identify this officer, but there seems no reason to doubt the claim.’

What really happened to Cmdr Lionel Kenneth Philip ‘Buster’ Crabb, George Medal, OBE, RNVR? We may not know in our lifetimes. The cabinet papers regarding the issue were scheduled to be divulged under the 30-year rule in 1986. However, citing national security, all matters concerning the Crabb affair have been ordered sealed until 2057.

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