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.