Lionel "Buster" Crabb : Biography

Lionel "Buster" Crabb

Lionel (Buster) Crabb was born in 1909. He worked in a variety of jobs until the outbreak of the Second World War when he became a gunner in the army.

In 1941 Crabbe joined the Royal Navy. The following year he was sent to Gibraltar where he became a member of the navy's mine and bomb disposal unit. Crabb had the dangerous task of located and removing Italian limpet mines from the hulls of Allied ships. He was such a success he was awarded the George Medal.

In 1943 Crabb was sent to clear the mines left in the ports of Leghorn and Venice. For this courageous work he was awarded the OBE.

After the war Crabb explored the wreck of a Spanish galleon and investigated a suitable discharge site for a pipe from the atomic weapons station at Aldermaston. Crabbe later returned to the Royal Navy and after helping rescue men trapped in a submarine, he was promoted to the rank of commander. However, in March 1955 he was forced to leave the navy on age grounds.

In March 1956 Crabb received an urgent message to meet privately with Lord Mountbatten, the First Sea Lord. Crabb was told that he was needed for a secret mission and that the results were to be shared with MI6 and the CIA. In fact, over the next couple of weeks, CIA agent Matthew Smith spent a considerable time with Crabbe. The mission involved spying on the Russian cruiser Ordkhonikidze. A ship that was going to bring Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin on a goodwill mission to Britain. Mountbatten warned Crabbe that it was a dangerous mission as the Soviets had discovered earlier secret dives on the Sverdlov when the cruiser visited England in 1955.

On 19th April 1956 Crabb dived into Portsmouth Harbour. He did not return to Teddy Davies, his MI6 minder, and it was assumed that he had been either captured or killed by the Russians. With the help of the intelligence services, the Admiralty attempted to cover up the attempt to spy on the Russian ship. On 29th April the Admiralty announced that Crabb went missing after taking part in trials of underwater apparatus in Stokes Bay (a place five kilometres from Portsmouth).

The Soviet government now issued a statement announcing that a frogman was seen near the cruiser Ordkhonikidze on 19th April. This resulted in British newspapers publishing stories claiming that Crabb had been captured and taken to the Soviet Union.

Sir Anthony Eden, the British prime minister was furious when he discovered about the MI6 operation that had taken place without his permission. Eden forced the Diretor-General of MI6, Major-General John Sinclair, to resign. He was replaced by Sir Dick White, the head of MI5. As MI5 was considered by MI6 to be an inferior intelligence service, this was the severest punishment that could be inflicted on the organization.

On 9th June 1957, a headless body in a frogman suit was discovered floating off Pilsey Island. As the hands were also missing it was impossible to identify it as being that of Lionel Crabb. His former wife inspected the body and was unsure if it was Crabb. Pat Rose, his girlfriend, claimed it was not him but another friend, Sydney Knowles, said that Crabb, like the dead body, had a scar on the left knee. The coroner recorded an open verdict but announced that he was satisfied the remains were those of Crabb.

In 1960 J. Bernard Hutton published his book Frogman Spy. Hutton argues that his sources claim that Crabb had been captured alive during his espionage activities and had been smuggled back to Soviet Union for torture and interrogation. According to Russian documents that Hutton had seen, Crabb later served as a diving officer in the Russian Navy. To help conceal the fate of Crabb, the Soviets dropped a headless and handless body wearing Crabb's equipment in the water near where he was lost a year earlier.

Tim Binding wrote a fictionalised account of Crabb's life, Man Overboard. Published in 2005, Binding novel is based on the story that appeared in Frogman Spy. Soon afterwards Binding was contacted by Sydney Knowles, the man who had originally identified Crabb's body. Knowles told Binding that Crabb was murdered by MI5 when it was discovered that he intended to defect to the Soviet Union. According to Knowles, Crabb was instructed to carry out a spying operation on the Ordkhonikidze. Crabb was supplied with a new diving partner who killed him during the mission. Knowles alleges that he was ordered by MI5 to identify the body, when he knew it was definitely not Crabb. Binding published this information in an article in The Mail on Sunday on 26th March, 2006.

In November, 2007, Eduard Koltsov, a former Soviet agent, gave an interview where he claimed that he cut Crabb’s throat after finding him attaching a limpet mine to the hull of the Ordkhonikidze.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Statement made by Pat Rose that was included in Don Hale's book, The Final Dive (2007)

I was first engaged to Lionel in 1948. We became engaged on the same day he received his George Medal. After that, we split up and we each married. It didn't work out and we were both divorced about the same time. We met once more and at the time he disappeared, we had been engaged for about four months.

On 16 April Lionel came around to my flat and we went out to a pub. We had lunch together but he was terribly jittery. He normally drank quite heavily, but he only had half a pint of beer and just picked at his food. I asked him what was wrong and he said he was going to Portsmouth the next day to test some equipment. Although I didn't want to go he persuaded me. On the journey down I threatened to break oft' our engagement if he didn't tell me what was really going on. I said he was always testing new gear, so there was nothing new in that. Finally. he admitted he was going to look at the bottom of the Russian cruiser. I said he had already done a mission like that before, but this time he said the Admiralty were sending him. I had met Matthew Smith a few weeks before. He talked like an American, and I didn't like him one bit. At Portsmouth. Crabbie said we could not stay in the same hotel because he had to leave and meet Smith. He said that if he didn't phone tomorrow, he would call in the evening. That was the last I saw of him.

(2) Don Hale, The Final Dive (2007)

Remarkably, at the time of Crabb's disappearance the First Sea Lord, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral John Inglis and even the M16 chief Sir John Sinclair were all said to be out of tile country. In later notes about the incident, Lord Mountbatten stated: "I returned from a long tour of South East Asia to find myself at the centre of a squall over the activities of' Cdr Crabb."

Mountbatten claimed he knew nothing about this mission until he was told by the Admiralty on his return. By that time. he said the press had got hold of the story, and it was clear that it scandal was about to break. He insisted he should have been told at once. The accuracy of some of his claims, however, has often been disputed and was certainly at variance with his own Vice-Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sir William Davis.

In his autobiography, Mountbatten asserted that he had instructed Davis before he left on his tour, that "no such operation was to be undertaken. He was justifying "what seemed superfluous precautions on the grounds that it seems irresistible for spies to look at ships' bottoms". Admiral Davis, though, claimed to have no knowledge of this instruction. And he said that Mountbatten agreed not to tell the First Lord of the Admiralty when it seemed likely that the story would never become public. He demurred only when Davis asked him to wait a few minutes until Cabinet Minister John Lang joined them.

Mountbatten's position regarding the Crabb incident came under scrutirty following attacks in the House of Commous, when the Labour MP. Lord Wigg, called out: "The man responsible is the First Sea Lord: he should be thrown out!" Wigg, who also knew that Lord Mountbatten was abroad at the time of the incident added: "Nothing in the Navy happens unless you want it to... they wouldn't have dared do it if they thought you would disapprove." And both the Daily Mirror and Daily Express vigorously attacked Mountbatten, with the First Sea Lord retorting by asking the Daily Mirror's Hugh Cudlipp: "Hugh, are you trying to get me sacked?"

Certain aspects of this embarrassing incident were later debated in Parliament. It caused mayhem within the establishment, and led to a massive breakdown in Anglo-Soviet relations.

(3) The Independent, review of Man Overboard (2007)

There's a certain sort of Englishman who is deeply patriotic and hasn't a clue why: the Queen is infallible and politics begins and ends with "voting Conservative every four years". They're a dying breed in 2005, but post-War Britain was crawling with them. They had given all during the hostilities, but their civilian life offered neither the excitement nor the moral certainty.

But it's not even that simple. This isn't the mindless patriotism practiced by some. For this kind of Englishman, it was "string and sealing wax and a regular tot of bloody-mindedness" which singled out the British war effort. Binding identifies exactly "what separates us from the Cowhands [Americans]. They do not understand the necessity of indifference."

And they don't come much more indifferent than Commander Crabb – the real-life hero of Binding's delightful, surprising, read-in-a-single-glorious-gulp new novel. A heavy-drinking, unemployable, near-feckless wastrel before the war, Lionel Crabb was transformed by service into a heavy-drinking, unemployable, near-feckless Able Seaman. Eventually commissioned into bomb disposal, he was posted to underwater disposal in Gibraltar with the words "Frankly, Crabb, we wouldn't mind you drowning."

But there in the Mediterranean, "opposed to any form of exercise", he found his unexpected metier – deep sea diving. Protecting British shipping from the Italians' constantly inventive limpet mines and two-man subs, he made a considerable name for himself. He ended the war a Commander and won the George Medal. But that's when his problems started.

He was now surplus to requirements – and clearly still a determinedly loose cannon. But rarely do narrators come this unreliable – and this is the joy of Binding's writing: he captures the soul of a man who knows he is constantly making a hash of things but can barely admit it to himself.

He undoubtedly had a serviceable skill and once the enemy shifted from Berlin to Moscow, it was in even greater demand. Through his ever unreliable eyes, we see him being manipulated by agents, double agents and moles. That is until he finds himself on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Because Binding's novel aims to unravel the mystery of Crabb's disappearance: Crabb finally went down and didn't come up in 1956. Binding paints a picture of Crabb, now dying, looking back on two careers, one for the Royal Navy, the other for the Soviet Navy.

And if, like me, you wonder how on earth a wool-dyed patriot like Crabb could calmly work for the Reds, Binding has a last twist in the tale which makes the entire story slot into place.

(4) Mail on Sunday (27th October, 2006)

The fate of a Naval hero said to have been the model for fictional superspy James Bond was hushed up by the Government, secret documents reveal.

Commander Lionel 'Buster' Crabb, thought by some to have inspired Ian Fleming's iconic novels, went missing during a dive off Portsmouth in 1956.

The Government was keen to play down embarrassing claims that he had been spying on Russian ships docked in the harbour during the visit of Soviet leaders Nikita Khruschev and Marshal Nikolai Bulganin.

Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden told the House of Commons that it would "not be in the public interest" to disclose the circumstances of his death.

He added that "what was done was done without the authority or knowledge of Her Majesty's ministers".

The cover-up prompted wild speculation for years, including claims that he was alive and well and living in Russia as an officer in the Red Navy, and others that he was killed by the Soviets.

Secret documents relating to the controversy were released to the public today at the National Archives in Kew, south west London.

They reveal the determination of officials to cover up what really happened, even rejecting a request for maintenance from ex-wife Margaret Crabb.

Five months after Crabb's death, WH Lewin, head of Naval Law, wrote in a memo: "If this came out ... it would not seem to square very well with our statement that Crabb had been out of the Navy for over a year at the time of his death."

The official Admiralty line following the incident on 19 April was that Crabb had been "specially employed in connexion with trials of certain underwater apparatus" and was missing presumed drowned.

But a memo from Rear Admiral JGT Inglis, director of naval intelligence, on June 21, explained that it was "considered essential" to avoid implicating top officers in Portsmouth.

In a 'bona fide' operation there would have been 'immediate and extensive rescue operations', he explained, while an unnamed diving officer who was with Crabb would have also taken action.

Instead, as Inglis points out: "The moment it became clear that a mishap had occurred (name blanked out) was ordered to return to his ship and take no further part in the affair."

If it had been a 'bona fide' operation, this would have exposed the other officer and the CinC to charges of "negligence, lack of humanity and error of judgment", which was considered unacceptable.

The secret account of an anonymous Lieutenant Commander, who assisted Crabb on the day of his disappearance, was seen publicly for the first time today.

He said that he had been asked, as an expert diver, to assist him "entirely unofficially and in a strictly private capacity" and there is little detail in the story.

The officer said: "He carried sufficient oxygen for an absence of a maximum of two hours submerged.

"His actions until disappearance under the surface were normal, and the conditions for diving were good. He was not seen by me again."

Navy officials were keen for this officer not to appear in public at a subsequent inquest after the headless body of a frogman was found in Chichester in June 1957.

It was decided to dispatch George William Bostock, a temporary clerical officer, to represent the Admiralty instead.

One of the secret documents explained: "He knows nothing of the background to the story and will not be able to answer any embarrassing questions even if they are asked."

The same document said: "The coroner is aware of the background to the case and is not asking for the appearance of any embarrassing naval witnesses."

The coroner ruled that it was Crabb's body that had been found. Even by 1972, the Navy wanted to keep the story quiet, and officials discussed the possibility of suspending the pension of a diver due to speak out in a planned BBC documentary on the case.

Howard Davies, archivist at the National Archives, said the extent of the cover-up suggested there was more about the case to be told.

"The conclusion that most people will draw is that there is a real intelligence angle to this which the authorities aren't ready to release," he said.

(5) Ben Macintyre, The Times (17th November, 2007)

One of the most bizarre and enduring espionage mysteries of the Cold War deepened yesterday when a retired Russian sailor came forward to claim that he had killed Buster Crabb, the naval war hero who died while spying on a Soviet ship docked in Portsmouth harbour in 1956.

The headless body of Commander Lionel “Buster” Crabb was washed up on the Sussex shore 14 months after a secret mission – to inspect the hull of the Soviet cruiser that had brought Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian President, on a state visit to Britain – went horribly wrong.

For more than half a century, MI6 has refused to explain what Crabb was doing, how he died and why a middle-aged, unhealthy veteran was chosen for a highly dangerous and diplomatically disastrous mission.

Eduard Koltsov has now given an interview to a Russian documentary team in which he claims that he was ordered to dive beneath the ship and investigate after a frogman was spotted in the water. Mr Koltsov claims that he cut Crabb’s throat after finding him attaching a limpet mine to the hull, according to a BBC report.

Mr Koltsov, who was then 23, was said to have shown the documentary-makers the dagger that he used to kill 47-year-old Crabb. “I saw a silhouette of a diver 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,” he said.

Members of Crabb’s family expressed doubts that the former naval commander would have been sent to blow up the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze, an act that would almost certainly have ignited war with the Soviet Union. “I simply don’t believe it,” said Lomond Handley, a relative of Crabb who has spent many years trying to unravel the affair.

The precise nature of Crabb’s mission has never been explained. What is certain, from documents released last year, is that British officials went to extraordinary lengths to try to cover it up. The former Royal Navy frogman was apparently recruited by MI6 to examine the cruiser for mine-laying hatches and sonar equipment, in direct defiance of orders from Downing Street.

During the Second World War, Crabb specialised in removing German limpet mines from Allied shipping, and was awarded the George Medal for bravery in 1944. He was nicknamed “Buster” after Buster Crabbe, the American Olympic swimmer and actor.

An eccentric figure on land, Crabb sported a monocle and carried a swordstick with a handle carved in the shape of a crab. But by 1956, he was past his prime. Far from being a James Bond character, he was by then middle-aged, drinking and smoking heavily, and in poor health.

The Crabb affair, one of the oddest and most unwise missions in espionage history, was a diplomatic disaster, prompting Soviet anger, the early retirement of the MI6 director John Sinclair, and a flood of speculation that continues today.

The official line from the Admiralty was that Crabb had died while “specially employed in connection with trials of certain underwater apparatus”. Sir Anthony Eden, then the Prime Minister, was questioned in the Commons and merely compounded the mystery by saying that any disclosure of the circumstances surrounding Crabb’s death would “not be in the public interest”.

He added that Crabb had acted “without the authority or the knowledge of Her Majesty’s ministers”, an indication that MI6 had ignored Eden’s instructions not to spy on the visiting Russians. At the time, it was reported that a Soviet seaman had spotted a frogman close to the ship, but government press officers were instructed to mount a cover-up.

The coroner could not determine a cause of death, prompting a wave of conspiracy theories: some claimed the frogman had been decapitated by the propellers of the Ordzhonikidze, others that he had been brainwashed or murdered by the Russians. Some suggested he had defected, having been recruited as a communist spy by Anthony Blunt.

Nicholas Elliott, a former MI6 officer who had been involved in the mission, claimed in his memoirs that Crabb “almost certainly died of respiratory trouble, being a heavy smoker and not in the best of health, or because some fault developed in his equipment”.

This year the Ministry of Defence disclosed that, in 1955, navy divers had successfully carried out an unauthorised espionage operation to inspect sonar equipment on a Soviet cruiser in Portsmouth.

Crabb has often been cited as one of the models for James Bond. Ian Fleming knew Elliott and was fascinated by the Crabb affair, but there is no evidence that Crabb was the original Bond: James Bond, for a start, is always successful, whereas Crabb, self-evidently, was not.

Fleming did use the incident as inspiration for Thunderball, in which Bond sets out to investigate the hull of the Disco Volante. Unlike Crabb, however, Bond returns intact.