It’s June 1957, and two fishermen are pulling in a strange catch from the waters of Chichester Harbor on England’s south coast. It’s the body of a diver, still clad in its suit, but without its hands or head. One year earlier, the famous frogman Buster Crabb had disappeared in the area while investigating a Soviet ship. Has the mystery of his fate finally been solved?
Born on January 28, 1909, in Streatham, London, Lionel Kenneth Phillip Crabb didn’t have a particularly auspicious start in life. In fact, his father Hugh was a traveling salesperson – and the family had little money to spare. So as a young man, Crabb helped to pay his way by working a number of different jobs.
According to Crabb’s cousin once removed, Hugh died during the First World War, leaving his son to be raised by a relative. Apparently, the boy went on to study at Brighton College in England – although no record of his attendance has ever been found. Eventually, however, he arrived at the HMS Conway, a naval training vessel that prepared men for a career at sea.
In 1939 the Second World War broke out, and Crabb became a gunner with the British Army. Two years later, he signed up to the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and was posted to Gibraltar in 1942. Still a part of Britain today, the small territory on the Iberian Peninsula was home to an impressive fleet of ships at the time.
Despite the relative security of Gibraltar’s harbor, however, the ships moored there were not entirely safe. In fact, Italian divers were wreaking havoc using limpet mines – a type of explosive that uses magnets to attach to a vessel’s hull. In response, British frogmen were busy scanning the harbor for other devices.
As part of the mine and disposal unit, Crabb was tasked with disposing of recovered mines. However, he soon decided to master the art of diving for himself. At the time, the equipment used by frogmen was very different to what it is today. And so the ambitious young man undertook his first missions without so much as a suit or fins.
In fact, the equipment that Crabb started out with was known as the Davis Submarine Escape Apparatus. First developed in 1910, this primitive breathing gear was initially designed to aid in underwater emergencies. However, by the Second World War, it had been co-opted by divers looking to extend their time below the surface.
Apparently, Crabb was a natural at this work. And not long after he had learned to dive, he successfully retrieved a limpet mine from underneath a steam ship. Amazingly, he managed to defuse the device – despite the fact that he had never seen one like it before. Then, in December 1942, his burgeoning career enjoyed another boost.
That month, the bodies of two Italian divers were recovered from the waters off Gibraltar. And unlike the British frogmen, they were equipped with fins and scuba sets similar to those used today. Soon, Crabb and a colleague – a man named Sydney Knowles – had claimed the superior gear for themselves.
During his time in Gibraltar, Crabb recovered and defused a number of enemy mines. Eventually, the Italian divers stopped attacking the harbor and the frogman was given the George Medal in recognition of his efforts. Later, he was made Lieutenant Commander and sent to the north of Italy, where he was named Principal Diving Officer.
While Crabb was in Italy, the Second World War drew to a close. But his work was far from over and he was assigned the task of clearing mines in Venice and Livorno. Eventually, he was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his work. Then, in 1945 he was relocated to the region then known as Mandatory Palestine.
And from there, Crabb was put to work removing mines once more. This time, they were underwater devices attached to the hulls of British ships by members of the Jewish underground army. Eventually, in 1947 he was demobilized, although he was far from ready to retire from his underwater escapades.
Now a bonafide war hero, Crabb was often referred to by the nickname “Buster” – a reference to the Olympic swimmer and movie star Buster Crabbe. And even though he was now a civilian, he continued to live an adventurous life. In fact, rumor has it that he began working as an underwater spy soon after leaving military service.
In 1950 Crabb was employed by the Royal Navy to search the wreck of the HMS Truculent. A British submarine, it had collided with an oil tanker and sunk to the bottom of the Thames Estuary. Apparently, it was the frogman’s job to hunt for survivors – although sadly he found none.
The following year Crabb was sent on a similar mission, this time to the wreck of the HMS Affray. But again, no survivors were found. Then, in 1953 he’s thought to have traveled to Egypt, where he undertook some kind of clandestine work in the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, he also turned his hand to diving for buried treasure.
According to myth, a Spanish ship carrying gold once sank off the coast of Tobermory on Scotland’s Isle of Mull. And in the 1950s Crabb traveled to the island with the Duke of Argyll, hoping to locate the elusive ship. However, the two men were unsuccessful and the frogman soon returned to military work.
Although Crabb apparently returned to the Navy, the exact nature of his work remains unknown. According to records, he was promoted to the rank of Special Branch Commander in 1955 and stationed at HMS Vernon, a shore establishment in Portsmouth, England. While there, he supposedly cultivated an eccentric persona, residing within a caravan and wearing suits made from tweed.
In 1955 Crabb and Knowles teamed up for a surveillance mission to scout out a Soviet cruiser in British waters. Apparently, this ship was renowned for its impressive mobility – and the Brits and Americans wanted to know more. Reportedly, the two men dove under the vessel at night, returning with information about its innovative propeller system.
Although this mission was a success, Crabb’s skill as a diver was beginning to fade. Now in his mid-forties, his love of drinking and smoking had begun to have an adverse effect on his health. And in March 1955 he was compelled to take retirement. But just one year later, the British Secret Intelligence Service – or MI6 – supposedly called upon him to join their ranks.
On April 18, 1956, the leaders of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev and Nicolai Bulgani, arrived in Portsmouth on board a cruiser called Ordzhonikidze. At the time, the Suez Crisis was reaching its peak and relations between Britain and the Union were strained. Nevertheless, the visit was intended to be a diplomatic one.
However, Khrushchev soon cut the visit short, claiming that the British had been carrying out illicit surveillance on the Ordzhonikidze. Then, 11 days after the Soviets had arrived in Portsmouth, the newspapers announced an alarming story. Apparently, Crabb had disappeared and was thought to have died.
According to initial reports, Crabb had disappeared while testing underwater equipment in Stokes Bay, located just west of Portsmouth Harbor. However, the mystery deepened when the Soviets claimed to have spotted a frogman diving near the Ordzhonikidze the day after their arrival. Had the former war hero been caught conducting a clandestine mission?
On May 9, 1956, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden addressed the diver’s disappearance. However, he declined to discuss any specifics relating to the incident. “It would not be in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which Commander Crabb is presumed to have met his death,” he is reported to have said.
But Eden also fueled suspicion by dissociating himself from Crabb, claiming that the frogman’s activities were undertaken without the government’s knowledge. And furthermore, the chief of MI6 resigned shortly after the incident. So given the circumstances, one was forced to wonder what really happened that April in the waters of Portsmouth Harbor?
On June 9, 1957, two fishermen made a shocking discovery in Chichester Harbor, under 15 miles east from where Crabb had disappeared. When they pulled up their net, they realized that they had snagged the body of a diver dressed in a drysuit. And gruesomely, the head and hands were missing.
Soon, the body was brought ashore and handed over to the authorities. However, the missing parts meant that it was all but impossible to identify the unfortunate frogman. Nevertheless, a British diving authority named Rob Hoole suggested that the body belonged to Crabb. Apparently, it was the right height and was dressed in the same gear that he’d been wearing during his mission.
Hoole claimed that the body’s missing head and arms were a natural consequence of having spent a year in the water, rather than as the result of a sinister plot. However, not everyone agreed with the identification. In fact, both Crabb’s ex-wife and current girlfriend were unable to state with any certainty that the remains were those of the missing diver.
In an effort to solve the mystery, Knowles was asked to come in and identify the remains. But while he recognized the type of suit found on the body, he ultimately determined that it was not Crabb. Apparently, the frogman had two distinctive scars on his left leg – and these marks weren’t present on the corpse.
On June 11 an inquest was opened into the still-unidentified man’s death. Later that month, a pathologist testified that he had re-examined the body – this time finding the scars that Knowles had been searching for. Eventually, the coroner established that the remains belonged to Crabb and an official burial was soon held.
However, the discovery of a body did little to dampen the rumors surrounding Crabb’s death. And soon, a number of strange stories began to emerge. According to one rumor, the diver had lost his head in a collision with the Ordzhonikidze’s propellers. While another claimed that a secret weapon had been responsible for the frogman’s death.
Over the years, rumors about Crabb continued to spread. In some stories, he was still alive and being held in a Moscow prison. Alternatively, he had been brainwashed and was training enemy divers in the Soviet Union. According to others, he had chosen to defect and was now a commander for the other side.
Other theories further proposed that Crabb had intentionally defected with the aim of becoming a double agent for MI6. Then, in 1972 another story emerged. According to Harry Houghton, a former spy, the Soviets had suspected that the British might attempt underwater surveillance on the Ordzhonikidze and had been prepared.
In his book Operation Portland, Houghton claimed that Crabb had been attempting to fix a limpet mine to the Ordzhonikidze when he was captured by sentries posted beneath the ship. And in the skirmish, his air supply was disconnected and he lost consciousness. Apparently, he was dragged on board the ship and made a temporary recovery. However, he later collapsed during interrogation – and this time, he didn’t wake up.
According to Houghton, the crew of the Ordzhonikidze disposed of Crabb’s body in the sea. Here, it supposedly remained for over a year before its discovery. And interestingly, this wasn’t the only claim that enemy forces had been behind the frogman’s death. In fact, in 1990 a former Soviet intelligence officer told an Israeli journalist that a sniper had shot the diver after spotting him near the ship.
In 2006 classified documents were released that finally shed some light on Crabb’s mysterious death. Apparently, he had checked into Portsmouth’s Sally Port Hotel on April 17, accompanied by a man believed to be MI6 liaison Ted Davies. Together, the pair had been tasked with investigating the Ordzhonikidze – particularly the equipment located within its stern.
According to the documents, Crabb and the man presumed to be Davies left Portsmouth in a small boat on April 19. And after completing one successful dive, the frogman returned to the surface in order to collect more weights. However, he never returned from his second mission beneath the surface. Apparently, his companion then removed all traces of them from the hotel, including the register pages that bore their names.
That same year, Tim Binding, who had released a fictionalized telling of Crabb in 2005, wrote an article for the Mail on Sunday. In it, he claimed to have been in contact with Knowles, who told him that his fellow diver had been planning to defect to the Soviet Union. And in order to avoid the embarrassment of such a scandal, MI5 had arranged the frogman’s death.
The following year, yet another theory emerged. According to the Soviet diver Eduard Koltsov, Crabb had been caught attempting to attach a mine to the Ordzhonikidze’s hull. In revenge, Koltsov claimed to have slit his throat, an act which allegedly earned him a military decoration. However, journalists have been unable to confirm his story. And many have deemed it improbable that the British would have attempted to blow up Khrushchev and Bulganin’s ship.
In 2007 a slightly more prosaic theory emerged. According to Hoole, the cause of Crabb’s death was quite simple. Old and out of shape, he was simply unfit for the mission and likely died in an incident far more mundane than anything else that has been put forward to explain his disappearance.
Still today, no official explanation has ever been given for the frogman’s death. Meanwhile, his exploits inspired Ian Fleming to pen the James Bond novel Thunderball, in which the fictional spy gets caught in a battle while searching for underwater bombs. But while Fleming’s hero survives as always, Crabb’s own fate will likely remain a mystery until at least 2057. Then, the official documents surrounding his disappearance are finally set to be released.