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date: 19 October 2019

Crabb, Lionel Kenneth Philipfree

(1909–1956)
  • Richard Compton-Hall

Crabb, Lionel Kenneth Philip (1909–1956), naval frogman, was born on 28 January 1909 at 4 Greyswood Street, Streatham, London, the son of Hugh Alexander Crabb, a commercial traveller for a firm of photographic merchants, and his wife, Beatrice Goodall. Crabb was described by contemporaries as a most courageous diver able to endure great discomfort, but technically inept and a man of action rather than a thinker: those assessments well summarize an overexciting career below the surface that extended from 1941 to a controversial end in 1956.

Little is known about Crabby or Buster Crabb's early life save that it was modestly commercial—unlike his diving career, which combined a fascination for ultra-secret missions with Edwardian flamboyancy. He was apt, as a commander, to carry a gold-topped cane and wear a vivid waistcoat under a naval monkey jacket; and he displayed an imperious manner which contrasted oddly with his habitual lopsided grin and 5-foot-and-a-bit stature. Crabb joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve before the war, and in 1940 he volunteered for bomb disposal duties. Following attacks by Italian human torpedoes in the Mediterranean a call went out for shallow-water divers to help defend Gibraltar harbour against submerged predators. Crabb responded to join a small team charged with singularly forbidding responsibilities. These included combating Italian underwater saboteurs and disabling weapons attached to ships' hulls, removing depth charges from sunken aircraft, and recovering dead bodies from the sea.

After the Italian armistice in 1943 Crabb co-opted frogmen of the former enemy into a resolutely non-bureaucratic anti-German activity near Venice; and, when the war ended, he was seconded to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in a risky venture to help observe the behaviour of trawlers at close hand. In 1947 he was invested with the George Medal and the OBE. Crabb was first into the water, in a vain effort to assist, after HM submarine Truculent had sunk by accident in the Thames estuary in 1950. He was promoted to commander in 1952, and on 15 March that year he married Margaret Elaine, the daughter of Henry Charles Brackenbury Williamson and the former wife of Ernest Albert Player. The couple separated in 1953, and divorced about two years later.

Crabb retired in 1954 but reappeared at Portsmouth on 17 April 1956 with a relatively junior member of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and booked a room at the Sally Port Hotel. He met senior police officers and then went to HMS Vernon (the torpedo, anti-submarine, and diving establishment), where Crabb persuaded a clearance diver to dress him for an important dive on the following day and take him by car to the dockyard where the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze, bearing the Soviet leaders Bulganin and Khrushchov to Britain for a formal visit, would be lying alongside the premier berth.

Subsequent events, although still the subject of media speculation, are in no doubt. At 5.30 p.m. on 18 April 1956 Crabb, required by the SIS on behalf of naval intelligence to measure the Russian cruiser's propellers for the benefit of the north Atlantic sound surveillance system (SOSUS), entered the water at King's Stairs some 80 yards from his objective; but he became caught in dockside piling and aborted. Early the next morning Crabb tried again but had difficulty with his equipment and swam back to King's Stairs for a few minutes. He returned to the water but was never seen alive again, except briefly at 7.35 a.m. by a lookout on one of the Soviet cruiser's escorting destroyers. A body, without head or extremities but with every indication of being Crabb, was discovered in Chichester harbour, Sussex, on 9 June 1957, over a year later. Meanwhile, the British government was embarrassed by clumsy attempts to cover up Crabb's disappearance. The prime minister, Anthony Eden, had expressly forbidden any intelligence operation during the Russian visit, and he was furious when he learned of MI6's involvement in the escapade.

The facts were that Crabb was middle-aged and unfit for diving at the limits of safety for non-revealing apparatus: a colleague remarked that he trained on whisky. Oxygen and/or carbon dioxide poisoning was almost inevitable in the circumstances. Tidal streams and currents predictably carried the corpse 10 miles to where it was eventually found—marking the sadly fruitless demise of a brave man.

Sources

  • private information (2004)
  • N. Elliott, With my little eye: observations along the way (1993)
  • M. Evans, ‘MI6 director lies low between the covers’, The Times (23 Nov 1991)
  • L. Kennedy, ‘Coffin down the Mersey’, Daily Telegraph (4 Dec 1993)
  • T. Bower, The perfect English spy: Sir Dick White and the secret war, 1935–90 (1995)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • E. N. Poland, The torpedomen: HMS Vernon's story, 1872–1986 (1993)
  • T. J. Waldron, The frogmen: the story of the war-time underwater operators (1954)
  • A. Dalton, ‘Navy papers shed light on the murky death of diving spy’, The Scotsman (22 April 1998)
  • R. Norton-Taylor, ‘Dark deeds: the cries over frogman Crabb laid to rest’, The Guardian (12 Jan 1994)
  • Navy List
  • m. cert.

Archives

Sound

  • IWM SA, oral history interview

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1950, Hult. Arch.
  • photographs, Gov. Art Coll.

Wealth at Death

£1205 9s. 9d.: administration, 10 July 1956, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]