This edited article about espionage originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 730 published on 10 January 1976.
Like visitors from another world, the Russian warships lay in Portsmouth harbour, symbols of a slight thaw in the cold war between East and West. They were the cruiser Ordzhonikidze and two destroyers, and they had brought the joint leaders of Russia, Marshal Bulganin and Mr. Krushchev, to Britain.
This was an official visit with a difference. Almost as soon as the Second World War had ended in 1945, the grand alliance between America, Britain and Russia split, and naked hostility sprang up between the West and Marshal Stalin, the all-powerful dictator of the U.S.S.R., a hostility so fierce that war often seemed round the corner.
But in 1953, Stalin died to be replaced by more moderate men, including Krushchev, who denounced him in 1956 for the appalling tyrant he was. In the same year he and Bulganin, “B and K” as they were known in the newspapers, visited Britain as part of a deliberate campaign to ease relations between the cold warriors.
All of a sudden a scandal broke. Something had been going on in the dark waters of Portsmouth harbour, and exactly what has never been discovered.
Enter – or rather exit – Commander Crabb, born in 1910 and a famous frogman of the Second World War. Among his daring feats was the removal of limpet mines from warships at Gibraltar and Alexandria, placed on their hulls by Italian frogmen.
In the course of his dangerous duties, he had received a wound from barbed wire below the water line, hung there to protect the ships’ hulls. It left him with a small scar shaped like an inverted ‘Y’ on the outer side of his left knee.
In 1956, he retired from the Royal Navy after his notable career and his immediate occupations appeared to be diving for sunken treasure and writing his memoirs. But in April, he told a friend that he was going down to Portsmouth as he had “a little job to do” there, but that he would be back in a few days. As all his friends knew, Crabb had been having trouble with his ears and eyes, and, indeed, he had told them that his deep-water diving days were over. It was a young man’s trade.
He phoned his friend from Portsmouth and it was quite clear from what he said that he had been underwater again. That was the last time the friends spoke.
Crabb had booked in at a Portsmouth hotel on Tuesday, April 17, with a man named Smith, who several days later became anxious to contact the Commander, only to be told that Crabb had left the hotel.
Meanwhile, Crabb’s friend was becoming alarmed and rang up a naval acquaintance who told him that he could say nothing about the diver’s whereabouts. There was something in the man’s voice that stopped further questions.
And the following day a naval captain appeared who revealed that Commander Crabb had vanished while carrying out underwater tests in the harbour and that he was assumed to be dead. “I shouldn’t talk about it if I were you,” said the captain.
But Crabb was a well-known man and others had known of his trip, or so it seemed, when the news broke in the Press. The Admiralty issued a statement to the effect that he was presumed dead, having failed to return from a test dive in connection with underwater experiments in the Stokes Bay area of the harbour.
The coincidence of the most famous frogman in Britain happening to be diving while Russian warships lay in the harbour was too obvious to be ignored and the affair rapidly blew up into a scandal. It was unfortunate, to say the least, that the Government appeared to be welcoming the Russians publicly, while privately spying on them.
The authorities did their best to cover their tracks. Four pages “disappeared” from the register of the hotel at which Crabb had stayed, the excuse being the Official Secrets Act; and when Prime Minister Anthony Eden was asked about the affair, he stated that he had nothing to say.
The Russians had something to say, however, for they claimed that a frogman had been seen in the area of their ships. Eden still kept silent about it after saying that it would not be “in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which Commander Crabb is presumed to have met his death”. But he did reveal that what had happened had been without official sanction and that disciplinary action was being taken.
Moscow Radio broke the news to the Russians two days later, revealing the texts of the Notes that had passed between the two governments. It seemed that a frogman had been sighted near one of the destroyers at 7.30 am on the 19th and when a protest had been lodged, the naval authorities had denied the matter. The Note then gave the information revealed in the British Press about Commander Crabb.
The one thing that seemed certain was that the famous frogman was indeed dead, but why had his body not been recovered? Was it trapped below debris? Had he been killed by the Russians after being spotted by them? Had he been captured by them?
A year later the body of a man in a frogman’s suit was found outside Chichester harbour, some seven miles from Portsmouth, by a fisherman named John Randall. That was on June 9, 1957, and on the 26th, the Chichester Coroner had no doubts that the body was Crabb’s because it bore his unusual ‘Y’ shaped scar.
Crabb may have died by accident. He was wearing breathing gear that was only safe to a depth of 33 feet (11 metres) and he was 46, a considerable age for a professional frogman.
To get below the Russian cruiser he would need to have dived deeper than was safe with his apparatus, and he may have died from oxygen poisoning.
Even assuming that he met his death in this way, we shall probably never know for certain, though one day years hence the authorities may release their exact reasons for sending him on his last mission.
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