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Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb, OBE, was a Royal Navy frogman and MI6 diver who disappeared while on an underwater spying mission in April 1956. For three quarters of a century the story around Crabb has remained a mystery – was he killed by the Soviets, whose ship he was spying on? Did he defect and assume a new identity? Did he die in an absurd, politically-charged accident? This week we examine the legend of Buster Crabb and zero in on the BBC’s attempts to make a documentary about his death, and how the British government intervened to stop them.


Who was Buster Crabb?

Let’s start at the beginning – who was Buster Crabb? He was born in 1909, named Lionel Kenneth Phillip Crabb – so you can see why he adopted the much cooler name ‘Buster’. He grew up in a poor family in South London, and joined the Merchant Navy and then the Royal Navy Reserve.

When World War 2 broke out he initially signed up as an Army gunner but then moved into the Royal Navy. He learned to dive, became a frogman, and for a time worked in Gilbraltar harbour, diving down to locate and clear mines placed on ships in the harbour by Italian divers. He was promoted and awarded the George Medal for his efforts, and earned the nickname Buster after the Hollywood actor Buster Crabbe, who played the Flash Gordon and the original Tarzan. Crabb also served in Northern Italy and (after the war) in Palestine, again as a diver clearing mines.

In 1948 he was demobilised, left the military and became a civilian diver-for-hire, who explored sunken wrecks and locations being looked at by pipeline companies, that sort of thing. In 1952 he married, though it didn’t last long. In 1955 he and a friend from WW2 Sydney Knowles investigated a Soviet cruiser, trying to identify the technology behind its superior manoeuvrability. He then retired from diving, but the following year was recruited by MI6. His drinking and smoking habits had got a lot worse in the months he was retired, so when MI6 recruited him he was not the fit, seasoned professional he was in World War 2. It is perhaps no surprise that Crabb is said to be one of the men that Ian Fleming used as the basis for James Bond.

Why was he recruited by MI6? For the answer we will turn to a chapter in Christopher Moran’s PhD thesis which is all about the Crabb affair. As Moran describes:

‘On 19 April 1956, during the state visit of the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and his Foreign Minister Nikolai Bulganin, Crabb was dispatched to scrutinise the hull of the Russian cruiser Ordzhonikidze, docked in Portsmouth harbour. An underwater inspection, believed his MI6 sponsor, might reveal details of asdic (sonar) devices, armour-plating, submarine detection gear, screw dimensions and other features betraying the ship’s offensive potential, speed and manoeuvrability.’

Crabb never returned from this mission, and within days was announced missing, presumed dead. The Admiralty concocted a cover story that he had died testing diving equipment a few miles away from the Russian ships. The government closed ranks, Prime Minister Anthony Eden made it clear he had not authorised the mission but essentially refused to comment on it. This is true – he had explicitly told MI6 not to conduct these sorts of spying operations because he was trying to develop better relations with the Soviets.

Most of the files on both the British and the Soviet side are still sealed, and aren’t due for release for several decades. The Ministry of Defence, for example, claimed for a long time that its files on Crabb’s mission and associated matters are part of a batch that were inaccessible, because they were suspected to be contaminated with asbestos dust. Some of these were eventually released.

As is always the case, this secrecy created a vacuum and since nature abhors a vacuum it has been filled with conspiracy theories. These theories include:

* Crabb was a double agent involved in espionage and he had been killed by a secret Soviet underwater weapon.

* He was captured and brainwashed to work for the Soviet Union so he could train their frogman teams.

* Crabb defected and joined the Soviet Navy under the name Lev Lvovich Korablov.

* MI6 asked Crabb to defect so he could become a double agent.

* He was murdered by MI5 – Crabb was known by MI5 to have been thinking of defecting to the USSR. As a result MI5 created the mission to the Ordzhonikidze so it could murder Crabb and cover up his death.

There also theories about his equipment failing and this being death by misadventure – basically that Crabb died because he was out of shape, drinking and smoking too much and shouldn’t have been sent on such a risky and difficult mission. These theories started circulating almost immediately, particularly since there was no sign of Crabb’s body. The government files include press cuttings of stories declaring that Crabb was still alive, and the speculation continues to circulate until today.

For example, in 2007 a former Russian frogman named Eduard Koltsov told a Russian documentary crew that he had murdered Crabb. He claims to have found Crabb attaching a mine to the Soviet ship, so he cut his throat. Obviously, this doesn’t explain the British government secrecy or why a body didn’t turn up until over a year later or any of the other problems and questions about these events, so I don’t consider this claim to be particularly plausible. Nonetheless, in the absence of so much information, we cannot rule anything out.

Buster Crabb’s body?

When a headless, handless body was found floating in the sea near Portsmouth, 14 months after Crabb’s disappearance, Sydney Knowles was one of the people the authorities asked to identify it as Crabb’s. In 2006 the BBC investigated the Crabb case, filing FOIA requests for various government documents and interviewing people who knew Crabb, including his close friend Sydney Knowles. Knowles says that Crabb had a major scar on his knee but the body he examined had no such scar, so he refused to identify it as Crabb. Likewise, when Crabb’s ex-wife examined the same corpse, she too noticed a problem. Buster had deformed toes that stuck up in an unusual way, but the body found in the sea had normal toes.

For months after Crabb’s disappearance but before the body was found, the upper levels of the government discussed whether or not they should hold an inquest. The other option was to have the military issue a certificate saying Crabb was dead, which they recognised was unlikely to stop the newspapers from talking about what had happened. One of the Top Secret files now available states quite confidently that the Home Office (or MI5) could persuade the coroner to not ask any potentially embarrassing questions, and to avoid calling witnesses they didn’t want called.

As Chris Moran’s thesis points out, there are other signs of official manipulation of the inquest process. The pathologist could not find any specific identifying information, such as a serial number on the diving suit containing the dead body. His original report did not mention any abnormal toes or any scars on the legs. As Moran puts it:

‘To assist identification the West Sussex Constabulary called several new witnesses. Eric Blake, managing director of the swimsuit manufacturer Heinke & Company, proposed that the outfit recovered from the sea was ‘identical’ to the commercial Italian suits he had routinely supplied Crabb, unusual because they possessed a neck seal without a hood.” Sydney Knowles – who now claims that he was cajoled by MIS to provide a false testimony – revealed that Crabb had a permanent scar on his left knee, sustained in 1945 as both divers were thrown against the barbed wire of the American vessel, the John Harrison, by the wash of a passing tug.” On 26 June, in view of this new evidence, the inquest was finally held. The pathologist’s report, originally inconclusive, had been drastically revised; as well as attesting to deformation of the feet, it now acknowledged a scar and put greater emphasis on the sartorial property of the suit.” Despite recording an open verdict, in which cause of death was undetermined, Bridgman concluded that a sufficient ‘chain of coincidences’ had been established to certify the cadaver as that of Crabb.’

Knowles doesn’t believe the official story. When the BBC interviewed him years later, Knowles said that Crabb told him he was thinking of defecting – and it is certainly true that Crabb knew Anthony Blunt and other high-profile double agents. Knowles believes that MI5 found out about Crabb’s plan to defect and sent him on this mission along with another diver, whose orders were to murder Crabb underwater.

However, there is no mention of a second diver from the last person to see Crabb alive – a Navy officer who helped dress Crabb in his gear before he slipped off into the water about 80 yards away from the Russian ship. This, of course, completely contradicted the Admiralty’s cover story that Crabb died several miles away, so the Navy really did not want this officer to testify at the inquest. The head of naval intelligence, John Inglis, told the coroner not to call him as a witness, and the coroner obeyed. Instead the Navy provided a different witness, William John Bostock, because – according to a document written by Inglis – ‘Bostock knows nothing of the background to the story and will not be able to answer any embarrassing questions even if they are asked’. This is exactly what MI5 did with the 7/7 London bombings inquests. Likewise, the man who had arrived in Portsmouth with Crabb, his MI6 handler Bernard Smith, was also never called to testify at the inquests.

Nonetheless there was an internal inquiry by Edward Bridges, a very senior civil servant and it is his report that the BBC acquired in 2006. However, the National Archives didn’t release the full file, which includes lots of Secret and Top Secret internal communications about the case, until 2015.

According to Bridges’ report the operation was a cock up from start to finish. Though the Prime Minister had told MI6 that they weren’t allowed to do this, an MI6 officer approached a senior Foreign Office official and presented them with a series of plans to spy on the Russians while they were visiting the UK, including Operation Claret, the diving operation. The Foreign Office official doesn’t seem to have realised they were being asked for permission to carry out the operations, and the MI6 officer seems to have assumed they had been given the go-ahead.

When Smith and Crabb arrived in Portsmouth a couple of days before the dive, Smith signed himself and Crabb into the hotel register using their own names and putting the address as ‘Attached Foreign Office’, the standard cover for MI6 operations. Four pages from this register were torn out by a local police chief two days after Crabb’s disappearance, in what appears to be a hasty attempt to cover their tracks. The local police had discussed doing this with MI6, but no decision was taken and it seems the police chief just decided on his own to do this. Naturally, this helped fuel the media fire and was a ‘regrettable’ mistake.

Ultimately, Smith and Crabb had no cover story, no back up plan, no escape plan if anything went wrong. The notion that sending a heavy smoker in his 40s to swim about underneath an advanced Soviet ship was a good idea, likely to bring back vital intelligence on Soviet technology, was idiotic. Given how long it has taken for this report and the documents surrounding it to be released, I’m inclined to believe this interpretation. I usually don’t accept the security services ‘whoops, we screwed up, now give us more money’ spin doctoring, but this is an exception. I think they fucked this one up royally.

The BBC documentary on Crabb

This story would not be complete without some kind of government influence on popular media and sure enough, there are at least three good examples. Two years after Crabb’s disappearance the film The Silent Enemy was released, which told a fictionalised version of Buster Crabb and the Meditteranean Fleet Clearance Diving Team in World War 2. The film was made with co-operation from the Admiralty, the Air Ministry and the War Office and naturally, does not cover the Crabb affair. While there was some speculation at the time that Crabb’s disappearance was staged to help promote books and movies about him, in fact the inverse appears to be true and the film helped in the cover-up.

A few months ago we looked at the BBC censorship of a Panorama episode about British intelligence, as I’m sure most if not all of you remember. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a similar story with Buster Crabb. Another Top Secret file from the Cabinet Office covering 1969-73 shows how the government attempted – successfully – to stop the BBC from making a documentary about the Buster Crabb affair. The file’s description is quite blunt – ‘Attempts to stop a proposed BBC programme about Commander Lionel (Buster) Crabb, a frogman who vanished while on a mission under Russian warships in 1956’. This is unabashed government censorship.

To my knowledge, though this file was released in 2005, it has never been the subject of any major news coverage. Moran does not mention it in his thesis, or in a later article he wrote on The Press, Government Secrecy and the ‘Buster’ Crabb Affair. I’m guessing he simply wasn’t aware of it, though it confirms a lot of what he says in both the article and his thesis. So this is a Spy Culture exclusive, another one of those stories you simply won’t find anywhere else.

Producer David Darlow wrote to Navy Public Relations in early 1972 outlining his planned documentary on the Crabb affair. The documentary would tell the story of Crabb being a wartime hero, outline the political background to the Soviet visit in 1956, and then explore some of the theories about Crabb’s disappearance. In particular, Darlow had a source who was a former Navy officer who told him that Crabb really did die in the water some miles away, and that he was part of the diving team who actually spied on the Russian ship. However, the source was worried that being interviewed on camera might lead to the loss of his Navy pension and prosecution under the Official Secrets Act.

The proposal was discussed by the intelligence chiefs and military brass, who didn’t like it because it wouldn’t portray them in a very good light, even though it supported the official story. The Ministry of Defence made clear that there was a second diving operation where a team from HMS Vernon did go down and spy on the Russian ships, and that this had been kept secret. A note from Vice Admiral Denning (head of the D-Notice Committee) also says that while the MOD shouldn’t offer any formal assistance to the production that perhaps the reply to the BBC should suggest clearing the script through him. So even though they weren’t giving the BBC anything, they still felt that they were entitled to script approval.

Navy Public Relations, who were dealing with all this, also consulted with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the MOD and found that it was unlikely the source would lose his pension or be prosecuted for betraying official secrets. However, when they wrote back to the BBC they didn’t mention this, and simply affirmed that all legal responsibilities were those of the source himself and the producers of the programme. It also advised clearing the script with Vice Admiral Denning.

Before the reply was sent (bearing in mind this goes on for months), other senior officials from the Foreign Office and the Joint Intelligence Committee got involved. The JIC – who coordinate the security agencies and are very secretive – decided that a ‘low level letter’ was the correct response, rather than a ‘high level approach to the BBC’. Records from the JIC meeting say that ‘the draft reply… should be amended to avoid giving the impression that the subject was exceptionally delicate, whilst still discouraging the project and especially the production of new evidence’. So they wanted it to firmly discourage Darlow from pursuing the project, while not seeming too worried about the topic in case this made him think he had a big story on his hands.

Does this not seem like overkill for one BBC documentary about a topic that was already the subject of near-endless speculation? Did these people not have something better to do? In late May – over three months after the request, Admiral Denning spoke to Darlow and got him to agree to provide the script for vetting, even though Denning refused to confirm that the retired Navy diver’s pension would not be at risk if he went on camera. Other memos record additional conversations where Darlow admitted that the man’s wife was ‘a neurotic’ who didn’t want her husband having anything to do with this, and that as a result Darlow wasn’t going ahead with the documentary.

Then, after some salacious and speculative stories about Crabb in the Sunday Times, Darlow discovered that his first source wasn’t actually a member of the diving team, but had found another officer who was, but who didn’t want to talk. Towards the end of the year he got the go-ahead and funding from the BBC, so he again contacted the government, trying to get clearance for his new source to talk on camera. They refused to give it, and used back channels to identify the source and tell him to keep his mouth shut.

They wrote back to Darlow, explaining that they couldn’t indemnify the source against prosecution or reprimands and that the MOD would not co-operate in any way with the production. In the middle of all this Darlow had tried to sell them on the idea that a fully-supported, definitive production on Crabb could be good for them. The high officials also considered reaching out to senior BBC executives to try to get the programme scrapped, but were worried that this might leak, or at least encourage the producers to think they really had something worth pursuing.

A couple of months later and Darlow had another source, and was apparently pursuing a story in the Daily Mail about a Navy petty officer on a nearby ship who apparently saw the Soviets taking someone prisoner. The final documents in the file say that the government strategy was to wait for Darlow’s script to come in for approval, and to use that as another opportunity to try to persuade the BBC to drop the whole project. In the end, Darlow got no further with the story and the documentary was never made.

So this wasn’t straightforward censorship in the East German sense of the word, but the government did in effect prevent the documentary from being made. It was not the only time. The 1970s TV series Warship, which was a documentary-style drama set on board a warship, was an early example of the British military providing full-scale production assistance to a TV show. Like in the American system, they effectively had approval over the scripts for each episode.

According to the PhD thesis of Victoria Caloran, citing files in the BBC archives:

The stories that potentially showed the navy in a bad light were edited out- despite the fact that the premise was that the BBC would maintain all editorial control; scripts were passed through the navy first. Some scripts were effectively vetoed by the navy: one that had some parallels with the story of Lionel Crabb, a scenario involving the ship’s parson getting drunk and another where a new midshipman is a homosexual.

So, we have the military supporting a movie portraying Crabb as a hero, which avoided the whole controversy of his disappearance, British military and intelligence and other departments effectively sabotaging a BBC documentary about Crabb’s disappearance, and the military vetoing a storyline that was similar to Crabb in a fictional but documentary-style drama series. Along with the secrecy around the original event, this is a great example of how the British government operates when it comes to so-called national security. They are paranoid and reactionary but also cunning, strategic and good at getting what they want without anyone finding out. Despite all the books and newspaper reports on Crabb, none of them have put the real story together. Even without knowing the truth about what happened to him that night in April 1956, there is an important story here that illustrates a lot about how British society is governed. In fact, given everything we’ve looked at today, I’d suggest that what happened to Buster Crabb is the least of our concerns. Forget the conspiracy theories – the real conspiracy is one of government secrecy and censorship.