Born as Lionel Crabb but perhaps best known to those who knew him, “Buster” Crabb and more specifically what became of him, is one of the most intriguing, if grim, unsolved mysteries in recent British history. And given that many of the files relating to the incident are to remain classified until 2057, we might be forgiven for presuming there is something rather extraordinarily contained within them.
Following a distinguished career as a Royal Navy frogman, as well as a civilian diver, he also served the last months of his life as a diver for the MI6. Perhaps, then, it is not that much of a leap of the imagination, particularly when we examine – as we will – that his disappearance took place during a diplomatic visit to Great Britain by the Soviet leader and his premier, that Crabb was a victim of the dark world of espionage.
However, despite his disappearance taking place over 60 years ago, it remains officially unsolved. Just what did happen to Buster Crabb? Did he meet a brutal end as part of a secret spying mission? Or might he himself, as unthinkable as it might be given his exemplary record with the British military, have been some kind of double agent?
While it is unlikely we will ever find a concrete answer as to Crabb’s fate, the case continues to intrigue in the contemporary era. One that quite bizarrely, perhaps even purposely according to some conspiracy theories, is looking increasingly similar to the one of Crabb’s own era. One of an ever-increasing rise of distrust not only between nations but within them.
A Brief History Of Lionel “Buster” Crabb
Before we examine Crabb’s apparent fateful last mission with British intelligence services and the mystery and conspiracies that surround it, it might be useful if we take a look at just why his disappearance, as well as his involvement in the dark underbelly of the world’s intelligence agencies, not only rocked the nation at the time but continues to fascinate researchers today.
Born in 1909, by the time of the Second World War he was part of the Royal Navy presence in the Italian waters, helping clear them of the many mines placed there by the Italians. He would receive several awards, including the George Medal for his services during the conflict that engulfed and indeed decimated huge parts of Europe.
At one stage by 1943, he was the Principal Diving Officer in the waters off northern Italy. Because of this, he would clear numerous mines that would have resulted in sunken British ships and huge loss of life. He would later be recognized as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire as further appreciation of these services.
Following the war, he performed similar services from Palestine, removing Jewish-placed mines from the waters around the Middle Eastern region.
After working as a civilian diver for most of the 1950s, age (for a diver) and, unofficially, his heavy drinking and smoking lifestyle, would force him to retire in March 1955. However, the following year, MI6 would recruit one-time war hero for their own ends.
Diplomatic Visit To Britain Of The Soviets, April 1956
On the evening of 18th April 1956, now working for MI6, Crabb and a gentleman named “Smith” would check into the Sally Port Hotel in Portsmouth. There, they would meet with officials of the British intelligence services.
According to the official story, one that would eventually come out in its fullest in the early 2000s thanks to declassified navy files, Crabb was to dive into Portsmouth Harbor where the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze was anchored after bringing Soviet leader, Nikita Krushchev and his premier, Nikolai Bulganin, for diplomatic talks with the British government. Once there, he was to study their state-of-the-art propeller systems and report back to British authorities.
Such a mission would be risky at the best of times, not least due to the Cold War environment. However, British authorities had assured the Soviet’s that they would be safe from any espionage from their intelligence services as a goodwill condition of their visit.
So, when Crabb, an experienced diver to boot, failed to surface from his dive. And was still missing ten days later, it put the British authorities in a sensitive and embarrassing position with regards to the Soviet Union. Even more so when the Soviet authorities issued a statement from their visiting vessel that crew members had witnessed a frogman near their ship on the 19th April.
Eventually, ten days after he was last seen, they would release an official statement.
Further Information To The Public “Is Not In The Public Interest!”
On the 29th April, British authorities would release a statement for the first time officially acknowledging that Crabb was missing. And what’s more, they would claim he was presumed dead.
Perhaps of more importance, certainly to the British authorities, was the notion that Crabb had been testing “underwater equipment” and had originally been far away from the Soviet cruiser in Stokes Bay. From there, he had simply vanished, presumably ending up, whether alive or dead, in the vicinity of the Soviet vessel.
Almost immediately, the British media went into overdrive. In particular, the daily tabloid papers. They would speculate intensely that Crabb – a “national hero” – had fallen victim to the Soviet authorities. Perhaps he was even on his way to Moscow courtesy of the Soviet ship to be interrogated.
Furthermore, the British Prime Minister at the time, Anthony Eden, it would appear, was left out of the decision-making process and was ultimately unaware of Crabb’s mission. He would indeed go out of his way in since released files to state that such a mission was “unauthorized” and should not have gone ahead. At the time, he would tell fellow MPs that disclosing information of the incident was “not in the public interest”.
As you might imagine, then as it is now, such a statement is like a red rag to a bull for many. First, however, check out the video below. It features news footage before Crabb’s body came to light.
A Headless, Handless Body!
Just over a year later, on the 9th June 1957, two fisherman fishing near to Pilsey Island would find a headless, handless body dressed in a diver’s wetsuit in their nets. After recovering from their momentary shock, they would contact authorities who come to bring the body to shore.
Perhaps this is where the case takes on an air of ambiguity and assumption. And to some, such notions usually go hand-in-hand with a purposeful covering up of something.
For example, the fact that the head and the hands were missing made identifying the body impossible. Even Crabb’s ex-wife, as well as his girlfriend at the time of his disappearance, couldn’t make a certain and positive identification.
In the end, the fact the body was a similar height to Crabb, as well as the fact it was donning a wetsuit the same as the one Crabb would wear was enough to allow the coroner to ultimately rule that the body was that of Crabb, and he died from undetermined causes.
Seemingly, even if we accept the body was Crabb’s, it would appear the lack of head or hands was not of concern to authorities. According to diving expert, Rob Hoole, there was “nothing sinister” about this given the amount of time the body had been in the water. The case, at least according to them, had all answers for the questions.
However, there were plenty of people who would go on the record to express their doubts that the body was that of the missing diver.
A Sudden Changing Of The Evidence!
For example, one of Crabb’s long-time friends and fellow divers, Sydney Knowles, was asked to examine the body. And possibly identify it shortly after its discovery. He would immediately focus in on two scars he knew the diver had. A Y-shaped scar behind his left knee, and a larger scar on his left thigh. Neither scare was there leading him to declare bluntly, the body was not Crabb’s.
What’s more, a fuller examination of the body by Dr. D. King would also reveal no such scars.
An inquest would open two days later on 11th June. And then adjourned for 15 days to allow further time to establish identification given the statements of the family members, Knowles and not least Dr. King.
This is perhaps where the first elements of a cover-up involving “intervention” methods first come to light. Just over two weeks later on the 26th June, Dr. King would give evidence claiming he had “reexamined” the body several days after his initial examination on the 14th June. During this second examination, he had indeed discovered the two scars he had somehow missed previously. A photograph was then produced, for the record, which King claimed he had witnessed taken.
Members of Crabb’s family and those close to him were not at all happy with this sudden change of evidence. Especially at such a high level in the British military. To them, it was perfectly obvious that it was in someone’s interest if the public thought Crabb was dead. As we will see, there were many who believe that quite the opposite was true, at least initially.
Files To Remain Secret For A Hundred Years After The Incident
Before we examine some of these theories in a little more detail, perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves that the final aspects of the case, in particular, the circumstances surrounding Crabb’s disappearance, are under lock and key until the second half of the twenty-first century in 2057, over a hundred years after he vanished.
That there would be no immediate living family members or even third or fourth generation family members around when such a release of information happens, perhaps is reason enough to believe that something so politically embarrassing resides within them. Even the JFK files, at least to begin with, didn’t face such a long wait.
However, not all information remained out of the public domain. After the “50-year-rule”, many of the previously off-limits files became available to the public over 2006 and 2007. And they do indeed reveal a lot that was conveniently left out of the original reports.
Perhaps most suspicious of these official reports was the realization that Crabb had not gone on the dive alone. In fact, a diving partner came in especially to work on the mission with him.
We will come back to this in a little more detail. As it also ties in with other theories made around the same time.
Attempts To Cover Up The Evidence Of A Cover-Up
What is also interesting, is that around the same time such previously classified documents were becoming available to the British public, as well as the independent claims (that we will look at shortly) were the sudden claims of an apparent former Soviet spy, Eduard Koltsov, who would make claims in 2007 that he was the agent who “cut Crabb’s throat” during an underwater struggle while Crabb attempted to fit a bomb to the docked Soviet.
Not only was this dismissed by the family and friends as:
…a coincidence that this has happened now, just before a book is due to be published on the entire episode!
In fact, there were several books available around the same time. And all of them pretty much agreed that the notion of Crabb planting a bomb – at the orders of British military intelligence, no less – was a ludicrous suggestion. Not least due to the location of the ship at the time. And the obvious consequences of such a rash course of action.
So, what was in these apparent explosive books? One of them, Man Overboard by Tim Binding was intriguing. It firmly placed the blame for Crabb’s death at the door of British intelligence. It would claim that Crabb was looking to “switch sides”. And ultimately, work for the Soviet Union (we will look at this a little further shortly).
This would be a significant propaganda blow for “the west”. According to Binding, intelligence services used a diving partner who was, in fact, an assassin. They would murder Crabb before he could make a switch. And reveal government secrets on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
An Abundance Of Theories And Speculation
The theories as to what happened to Buster Crabb would run rampant over the years and even decades that followed.
For example, let’s look at the discrepancy of the identity of the body – at least unofficially. Many theories would revolve around Crabb’s capture by the Soviet Union and his journey back to Moscow for interrogation. What’s more, according to some researchers (and even family members of Crabb’s), there is a belief that the British authorities were aware of this. However, they wished to deal with the matter discreetly and away from the public glare.
Might this have taken place under the collective noses of the British public? Might some kind of secret spy exchange program have taken place? It is certainly possible for the intelligence services to pull of such an exchange. It would then rest, however, on Crabb assuming another identity. And most likely living somewhere else other than the United Kingdom.
The British authorities would undoubtedly wish to keep such a potential exchange out of the public arena. One would imagine the Soviet authorities, however, would have looked to publicize the case as much as possible. A perfect fit for their propaganda machine.
So, with that in mind, then, perhaps any type of exchange program appears unlikely.
Other theories revolve around Crabb actually “turning to the Soviets” and working for them. Using the mission as a cover for doing so. Friends, family, and colleagues of Crabb’s, however, dismiss this possibility without contemplation. Crabb, they said, for all his faults and lifestyle choices, was fiercely patriotic to his country.
Perhaps, then, we might consider that Crabb was a double agent? Maybe he had “allowed” himself to be captured in order to turn to the Soviets? While still working for the British?
Another Example Of The Multi-Layered, Gray Areas Of The Espionage World!
Each of these last two possibilities, are not at all impossible to imagine. However, they would have likely come to the surface following the fall of the Soviet Union.
Other theories would even suggest that the Soviets would capture him. And interrogate him. During which, he died (remember, he wasn’t in the best of health). This could have been, as bizarre as it sounds, an embarrassing situation for both countries concerned.
Perhaps, in spite of all the theories, however, Crabb simply died of misadventure. An accidental, but no less tragic death? Remember, his lifestyle of excessive drinking and smoking had most definitely caught up with him. His experience and intuition under the water were second to none. His physical fitness, though, was far from at its peak.
If that was the case, however, why was there an apparent attempt to pass off a body – one without a head or hands, coincidentally or not, the two ideal parts of the body that would have confirmed one way or another that the body was Crabb’s – as the intelligence diver? Was it merely to draw a line under the case for the public? Does this suggest intelligence services really didn’t know what happened?
Although let’s return again to the fact that many aspects of the case will remain out of the public domain. For several more decades, to boot. That, then, would suggest that there is more information to come. And it will likely be of a nature that will not surprise future generations who will see it. It would most likely, though, still surprise us today.
Check out the video below. It looks at this most fascinating case in a little more detail.