Maritime mysteries: The nefarious demise of Buster Crabb

Lionel Crabb, OBE, also known as “Buster’ Crabb was a World War 2 decorated frogman. 

Crabb was born in 1909 in south-west London. He spent two years on a training ship, before joining the merchant marine and Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in peacetime. 

 When war broke out in 1939, Crabb was initially a gunner in the army, but transferred to the Royal Navy in 1941, and was seconded to Gibraltar to work removing limpet mines that threatened Allied merchant ships. 

After becoming a diver (he had previously assisted divers in mine clearance) he became one of a group of limpet mine divers clearing Gibraltar harbour during a period of attacks and sabotage by the Italian Decima Flottiglia Mas (the 10th assault Flotilla) which also maintained a commando Frogmen unit. 

 Crabb was awarded the George Medal for his bravery and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander. Later was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for these services to the Royal Navy. 

He moved into civilian diving work after the war doing treasure dives to sunken vessels from the Spanish Armada of 1588, before returning to the Royal Navy to dive upon sunken submarines and establish whether survivors were present. Another responsibility was to investigate the hull of a Soviet class cruiser in which he reported back that the ship was adorned with high-spec manoeuvrability thanks to an innovative propeller.

In 1956. MI6 recruited Crabb to investigate (under direction from Naval Intelligence) the propeller of the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze that had delivered the head of state Nikita Khrushchev to diplomatic meetings in Britain. On the 19th of April, Crabb was instructed by an MI6 handler to dive on the cruiser, now berthed in Portsmouth Harbour. 

Crabb was never seen or heard from again. 

 Many theories have been offered as to the fate of Crabb. According to investigative author Peter Wright, the Soviets had been tipped off about Crabb’s mission by a mole within the spy agency. Wright recounts a story told by a Russian Seaman some years after the disappearance in which he suggested Crabb had met his end via his airline, followed by his throat, being cut by a Russian frogman. 

 The failure of the mission, no doubt embarrassing for British Intelligence, was covered up Admiralty announced that Crabb had vanished when he had taken part in secret underwater trials. The Soviets released a statement stating that the crew of Ordzhonikidze had seen a frogman near the cruiser on 19 April.

 A little less than 14 months after Crabb’s disappearance, on 9 June 1957, a body missing both its head in a diving suit was brought to the surface in their net by local fishermen in Chichester Harbour.

 The body was missing its head and both hands, which made it impossible to identify. at also had some physical characteristics that matched with Crabb and measured roughly the size height.

 The issue of the missing extremities was explained away as predation by marine animals and Crabb’s ex-wife, and current girlfriend were unable to physically identify the torso.

 Other theories that Crabb was a double agent and had been spirited away by Russian Frogmen, and lived out his days in the Communist state. Others have promoted that Crabb met his fate by simple misadventure, or that he had become a victim of his physical condition  brought on by heavy smoking and drinking made him unsuitable for diving.

  Unfortunately, the official word on what really happened on that clandestine mission in 1956 is sealed by the British government and is not due to be released until 2057. 

Royal Navy Frogman Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb disappeared mysteriously while on a secret dive to the hull of a Soviet cruiser in dock at Portsmouth in 1956.

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