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Mysteries, Intrigue, and the Strange Disappearance and Death of the Diver Lionel Crabb

War and times of international tension have very often created heroes and icons, but they have also created their fair share of unsolved mysteries. During all of the turmoil things can be forgotten, brushed aside, and erased from the public consciousness. This had been the cornerstone of many a great unsolved mystery, with such tales a heady mix of history, drama, intrigue, and the unexplained. Once such case we will look at here is that of a prominent diver and war hero, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances to propel himself into a world of spies, mystique, shadowy organizations, and international intrigue.

During the bloody chaos of World War II, a British army gunner by the name of Lionel Crabb, most often called by his nickname Buster Crabb, was just another faceless, expendable component of the machine of war. He may very well have been forgotten and lost to history if it wasn’t for his life-changing decision to join the Royal Navy, where he would go on to be a diver with a mine and bomb disposal unit tasked with removing and disarming mines that were attached to British ships by enemy Italian frogmen in Gibraltar harbor. He was by all accounts very good at his job, inventing new techniques for removing what were called “limpet mines,” and showing courage on countless occasions, which earned him his nickname “Buster,” after the American Olympic swimmer and action hero Buster Crabbe, star of films such as Tarzan and Flash Gordon. For his efforts he would be awarded the prestigious George Medal, earn a promotion to lieutenant commander, and he would later become Principal Diving Officer for Northern Italy and become an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. He would be involved with numerous important bomb disposal missions both in Europe and in Palestine, and by the time he retires from the military in 1947 he was more or less a full blown war hero.

Lionel Crabb

Even after his stint in the military Crabb continued to dive well into the 1950s. He was heavily into exploring wrecks, and he also continued to help out the Royal Navy as a private contractor, carrying out missions such as investigating sunken British submarines. Crabb was so good at what he did that in 1955 he was recruited by the British covert foreign intelligence service MI6 for the purpose of secretly investigating the Soviet ship Sverdlov, as it was docked in Portsmouth harbor during an international naval review. The British were curious as to how it was able to possess such remarkable maneuverability for its size, and so Crabb was sent in with frogman Sydney Knowles to check it out covertly. They would discover that it had a unique propeller design that allowed it to perform such feats, which they relayed to MI6. The mission was considered a success, and it was supposed to mark Crabb’s official retirement from professional diving, but he was nevertheless pulled back in for one more job. However, this would not only prove to be his last mission, but would also launch a mystery that still has not been solved to this day.

In 1956, the MI6 tasked Crabb with checking out the Russian ship Ordzhonikidze, which was docked at Portsmouth Dockyard while on a good will visit to Britain. At the time, Britain and Egypt were squabbling over ownership of the Suez Canal, with the Russians supplying weapons to the Egyptians in a very tense state of affairs, indeed, and so this mission was to smooth things over between the Russians and British. The Russians would end up cancelling the whole thing on suspicion that their vessel was being spied upon, and they weren’t wrong. Crabb’s job was once again to analyze the design of a new type of propeller the Soviets were using, and on April 19, 1956 he dove into the harbor to go take a look, along with another frogman called “Matthew Smith.” This would be the last time anyone would see him alive.

According to Smith, Crabb made a successful preliminary dive and came back up for more weight, before diving down off the face of the earth to never resurface. After Crabb did not return, Smith aborted the mission to return to the Sally Port Hotel in Old Portsmouth, where they had been staying. There he apparently removed several pages from the hotel register surrounding their stay and took all of Crabb’s belonging before vanishing himself. Interestingly, it would not be until 10 days later that the disappearance would be officially reported and get out into the news, but the MI6 was very opaque and evasive about the circumstances of the vanishing and the mission. Interestingly, it would come to light through a statement by none other than the Prime Minister at the time himself, Sir Anthony Eden, that the spying mission was carried out through Crabb without him even knowing what it all entailed and without proper authorization, saying:

It would not be in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which Commander Crabb is presumed to have met his death. While it is the practice for ministers to accept responsibility, I think it is necessary in the special circumstances of this case to make it clear that what was done was done without the authority or knowledge of Her Majesty’s ministers. Appropriate disciplinary steps are being taken.

The Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze

In the meantime, Rear Admiral John Inglis, the Director of Naval Intelligence, contradicted this when he said that Crabb had died during testing some new secret underwater mine technology in Stokes Bay on the Solent. Making it even more confusing still was that the Soviets would chime in to claim that crew of Ordzhonikidze had definitely seen an unidentified frogman lurking about near their vessel on the 19th. What was going on here? Whatever it was, it was enough to supposedly convince the Head of MI6, Sir John Sinclair, to resign from his position, deemed “early retirement,” and while it is unknown if this had any connection it certainly further stoked the flames of conspiracies of some sort of cover-up.

The MI6 would aggressively deny everything and pretty much disown Crabb, and the mystery would stay at that, with no further word on Crabb’s fate or his mission, until previously classified reports were released under the Freedom Of Information Act. They further paint Crabb’s government handlers as being reckless and not taking proper precautions to make sure the mission was properly overseen and kept secret. It came to light that not only had they never carried out a full search in the wake of the disappearance so as not to alert the Soviets to what was going on, but that the Prime Minister had never even given the OK for the mission to begin with. After that it had been bungled and mishandled from the beginning, and one of Crabb’s living relatives, a Lomond Handley would say:

This was a spying mission which went ahead despite the prime minister forbidding it and when the operation went pear-shaped they did nothing seriously to get him back. They acted very carelessly at best and at worse callously. They abandoned him. They left him to his fate, which to me is absolutely horrendous after all that he had done for his country. It was a bungled operation, planned without sufficient thought, because those in charge failed to apply their minds to the consequences should it go badly wrong. It stinks. It’s absolutely appalling that politicians, particularly the prime minister, were not told what was going on. They were more concerned with covering their own tracks than actually saying “look, we’ve made a mistake, something awful has happened, we don’t know what to do”. They were more concerned with covering their own tracks… it sounds like something from “Yes Minister.”

Lionel Crabb

The report also says that the Prime Minister had had no knowledge of any of this until a full two weeks after Crabb’s mysterious disappearance, that he had opposed any spying missions during the Soviet’s visit to Portsmouth, and that neither the MI6 or the Admiralty were willing to take responsibility for what had transpired. As soon as these documents got out into the wild, the whole case was reignited again, spurring all manner of conspiracy theories and tales of intrigue. Ideas ran from that the Soviet’s had taken Crabb prisoner to that he had been disposed of by MI6 itself, that he had been imprisoned by the Soviets or even defected, that he had been brainwashed to become a double agent, and others, but no one really knew if he was even alive or dead, that is, until June 9, 1957, when a headless, handless corpse of a diver was found bobbing about near Pilsey Island in Chichester Harbour. Considering the suspicious absence of dental or fingerprint evidence, it was difficult for anyone to identify the corpse, but it was ultimately found to be Crabb’s through a very distinctive Y-shaped scar on the left knee, despite the fact that it had first been claimed that no such scar had been present. No cause of death could be determined, but the coroner was finally certain that this was the body of the missing diver. Still, it did little to solve the mystery as a whole, and theories swirled trying to answer the question: what happened to Lionel Crabb?

One prominent idea is that Crabb was captured by the Soviets and died during intense interrogation or that they just straight out killed him with a sniper as he approached the ship, and there is also the idea that he died while imprisoned by the Soviets. It was also suggested that he had been assassinated by MI5 after they became aware of his plans to defect, or by MI6 in order to shut him up about his secret mission. It has even been suggested that the corpse that was found was not Crabb’s at all, and that it was part of a cover-up to hide the fact that he was still alive somewhere. Other more mundane ideas were that he had simply died of oxygen or carbon dioxide poisoning, helped along by the fact that he had been known to be a heavy drinker and smoker well past his diving prime, or that he had experienced some sort of equipment failure or even been decapitated by the propellers of the ship he had been investigating. In 2007 a very curious lead came forward when a retired Russian diver by the name of Eduard Koltsov claimed that he had been the one to kill Crabb, in an underwater fight that had ended with him slashing Crabb’s throat. Is there any truth to this? Who knows?

Throughout all of this the British government has always tried to distance itself from it, at first claiming that the body had been in the water so long that the absence of a head and hands were not unusual, and then going on to extend the Freedom of Information Act by a further 60 years, meaning no further information on the whole thing will be available until 2057. Crabb has gone on to be credited as an inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond, and has also lodged himself firmly into the realm of great unsolved mysteries. What happened to him? What is with all of the contradictory statements and the government’s evasiveness to face it all? Who was the mysterious dive mate with Crabb on that day and where did he go? Just what is going on here? It is likely will never know, or at least won’t know more for some time. In the meantime, the mystery of Lionel Crabb’s disappearance and death remains hotly debated and discussed, a search for answers we may never get.