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The mysterious death of the WW2 hero, ‘Buster’ Crabb

Posted in Communism, Espionage, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 2 on Monday, 17 February 2014

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This edited article about Cold War espionage first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 555 published on 2 September 1972.

Anthony Eden,  picture, image, illustration

Sir Anthony Eden, who was forced to make a statement in the House of Commons

He had been a frogman, a member of that small band of dedicated and courageous men who had fought their war underwater. And he was undoubtedly the most famous of them all, mainly because of the way he had freed the hulls of a number of warships at Alexandria and Gibraltar from the limpet mines that had been placed on them by the Italian frogmen. It is not altogether clear why he should have become so famous for those two operations. After all, men were risking their lives daily all over Europe in the struggle against Nazism. Perhaps it was because frogmen were a new factor in war and not much was known about them. Perhaps, too, the British were anxious to have an underwater hero of their own, after having read of the exploits of the Italian frogmen who went into battle beneath the seas on piloted torpedoes. But whatever the reasons, Commander Crabb was a national hero.

But all wars come to an end, and when that time comes heroes tend to be forgotten. In 1947, Lionel Kenneth (Buster) Crabb found himself out of the Service and with no immediate prospects of a job. Stripped of his uniform and dressed instead in a tweed suit and a pork pie hat, he no longer even looked like a hero.

Fortunately for his own morale, Crabb had not completely severed his connections with the Admiralty, who could always use a good frogman. After using him in an attempt to rescue the crew of a submarine which had sunk after a collision in the Thames Estuary, the Lords of the Admiralty recalled him to Naval Service. But inevitably, it was only a temporary reprieve. In 1955, Crabb retired, owning little more than a rag bag of memories which he intended to turn into a book of memoirs. He was now forty-five. No more than middle-aged. But with the days of adventure surely well behind him one would have thought.

But this was not so. Security being what it is, no one except a chosen few knew exactly what Crabb was doing until that fateful day when he disappeared beneath the waters of Portsmouth Harbour, never to be seen again. But one may guess that he had undertaken a number of freelance assignments for the Navy. Possibly he may even have worked for Intelligence. Whatever he was doing, one thing was certain, Crabb had not settled down in some routine job where he would merely grow older and more tired with every passing year.

We must now leave Crabb for a short while so that we may look at the political situation as it stood in the April of 1956. Surprisingly, after all those unhappy postwar years, in which the West and the Soviets had been on somewhat less than friendly terms, there were now hopes for world peace. Russia’s president, Marshal Bulganin and her Premier, Mr Krushchev were now in Britain, meeting the people and generally behaving in a far less stiff backed manner than one usually associated with Soviet politicians. There was a real feeling in the air that the visit would lead to better relations, if nothing else.

But this happy state of affairs was short lived.

While Marshal Bulganin and Mr Krushchev were in London, the 12,000 ton Russian cruiser, the Ordzhonikidze waited outside Portsmouth harbour with two attendant destroyers. The Ordzhonikidze was an impressive Warship, with a reputation for being exceptionally fast and highly manoeuvrable. She was so impressive, in fact, that there is no doubt that the Navy would have liked to know more about her. The question was to be asked later if common sense and caution had been overridden by curiosity.

It was while these three ships were anchored outside Portsmouth Harbour that Crabb arrived on the scene. Those of his old friends who saw him walking jauntily through the streets, carrying a sword stick with a head in the form of a gold crab, had no reason to think he was there for any sinister purpose. And why should they? It was common knowledge that Crabb had been having trouble with his ears and his eyes for some time, and it therefore would be most unlikely that he had been summoned there by the Navy to use his special skills. If he was there at all on Naval business, it could only be of a routine nature.

Nothing was further from the truth Crabb was certainly fit to dive, and moreover, he was in Portsmouth on a mission, so foolhardy and ill-advised as to make one wonder in the light of subsequent events whether someone in high places had taken leave of their senses.

The story, or at least that part of the story we know, broke on April 27th, when the Press learned that a friend of Crabb’s who had been trying to trace him, had been told by a Naval officer that Crabb had disappeared and was probably dead. Telephones began to ring at the Admiralty, which vainly tried to answer the flood of questions that poured in from journalists hot on the trail of a good story. What had Crabb been doing at Portsmouth? Was he really missing? Or was it definitely known that he was dead? When would more information be forthcoming? Under this pressure, the Admiralty issued the following statement:

“He is presumed dead as the result of trials with certain underwater apparatus. The location was in Stokes Bay, and it is nine days since the accident.”

Obviously this bald statement could only cause more endless conjecture, which was voiced so loudly in the Press and in the streets by the general public, that it became necessary for the Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, to make a statement in the House of Commons. The gist of it was that whatever Crabb had been up to, it had been done without the authority or knowledge of Her Majesty’s Government.

This statement did not help much either, especially when it was learned that police officers had visited the hotel where Crabb had been staying and had torn pages from the register, after cautioning the hotelier under the Official Secrets Act, not to discuss the case with anyone. Almost daily, the case of the missing frogman was becoming more and more sinister.

To everyone the implications behind Crabb’s disappearance were all too obvious. Crabb has been employed to go snooping underwater to see what information could be gained about the Russian cruiser anchored outside Portsmouth harbour. This was certainly more than a theory because the Russians claimed that they had seen a frogman bobbing up and down in the water near the Russian cruiser.

But this still left a number of questions unanswered. What had Crabb been hoping to find? Who had employed him? And what had happened to him?

There was no shortage of answers to all these questions. The trouble was that none of them was based on hard fact. There were those who believed that Crabb had been employed by the Americans to see what submarine devices might be fitted to the hull of the Russian cruiser, and that he had either been electrocuted by an anti-frogman device, or had been attacked and killed underwater by Russian frogmen.

This theory, melodramatic and exciting though it may be, seems unlikely. The Russians themselves had stated that in the circumstances they would never have dreamed of taking any action against the frogman. And there is no reason to disbelieve them when one takes into consideration that their leaders were in Britain on a good-will mission.

Undeterred by this sort of logic, there were others who subscribed to a school of thought that claimed that Crabb had been captured underwater by Russian frogmen who had hauled him aboard, and then had taken him to Russia where he was now being held a prisoner.

After these fanciful flights of the imagination, what other theories are left? First, one has to bear in mind that Crabb was a man of forty-six, an age when any diving which needed undue exertion was dangerous. The type of oxygen breathing gear which he would have been wearing was not safe beneath a depth of 33 feet, and to dive beneath the Russian cruiser Crabb would have needed to have gone to a much greater depth than that. In those circumstances it is quite possible that Crabb took a chance and died from oxygen poisoning.

There is a tailpiece to the Crabb story. A year after the incident, a fisherman in Chichester harbour, seven miles away from Portsmouth saw the body of a man in a frogman’s suit floating on the water. The body was later identified as that of Crabb’s.

But inevitably the doubts and questions remain. Who had employed him? And did he really die in the manner we have suggested? It seems unlikely that we shall ever know.

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