Mystery in History Disappearance of Commander Lionel Buster Crabb

About the disappearance of Commander Lionel Buster Crabb, history and possible solutions to the mystery of the missing English frogman.


The Event: The Disappearance of Comndr. Lionel "Buster" Crabb

When: 1956

Where: Portsmouth Naval Base, England

The Mystery: "I have a little job to do," Crabb told a friend in April, 1956. The famous and highly decorated Royal Navy frogman (he had removed Italian limpet mines from the hulls of warships during W.W.II) had experienced hard times since his retirement. At 46, he was in poor health, having trouble with his eyes and ears, and verging on alcoholism. Since he was nearly penniless, the new job was a godsend.

On the morning of Apr. 17, Crabb booked into a hotel in Portsmouth. He was accompanied by a young man who gave his name as Bernard Smith. "Smith" was a secret service agent.

Next day, the 14,500-ton Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze, accompanied by two destroyers, anchored in Portsmouth Harbor. It brought Marshal Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev on an official visit to London. At dawn on the 19th, as Smith watched, Crabb--wearing a rubber diving suit and equipped with a naval closed-system rebreather--entered the water and swam 70 yd. beneath the Soviet warship. He returned at 7:30 A.M. to adjust his breathing gear, which had given him trouble, forcing him to surface. He reentered the water and did not return. "We've lost Crabb," Smith reported to London.

Crabb had been spotted by a sentry on the warship. Khrushchev no doubt expected that an attempt would be made to spy on Russian underwater equipment and was not offended. Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden was furious. Crabb's dive was unauthorized, he told the House of Commons. On Apr. 29, the government acknowledged that Crabb was "dead," a remarkable and never explained admission when it needed only to state that he was "missing."

Had Crabb been caught swimming beneath the cruiser, or electrocuted by antifrogmen devices, or held against the cruiser's hull by a powerful magnetic field until he drowned, or killed in a deadly underwater struggle with Russian frogmen? Or had he been captured and taken to Russia?

On June 9, 1957, fishermen dragged from Chichester Harbor, 15 mi. from Portsmouth, the body of a man dressed in a naval-pattern frogman's suite. Head and hand were missing. The body could have been in the water for 6 to 14 months, the time elapsed since Crabb's last dive, stated a pathologist. But it was impossible to determine the cause of death.

The body was Crabb's. It conformed to his description--size of feet, shape of legs, color of body hair--and it bore a scar on the left knee identical to a wartime wound Crabb had received.

Had his body, half-eaten by fish, drifted from Portsmouth, or had it been released from a Soviet submarine?

Possible Solutions: There are several theories. Did the Russians kill Crabb beneath the cruiser and allow the body to drift away? Did they take him to Russia and kill him there? Did they persuade him to join the Soviet navy and dump another body in the English Channel? According to a West German source, Crabb is still alive but is now using the name Korablov.

It is more probable that Crabb died in Portsmouth Harbor from respiratory failure. He was in poor health and above the age limit for deep diving. His breathing equipment was meant for dives down only to 33 ft., and he would have needed to dive below that depth to clear the 25-ft. draft of the Ordzhonikidze.

Because he needed the job, Crabb took a chance--and lost. Or did he?

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