ON THIS DAY    9 May      Graphics version >>   BBC News >>
Search ON THIS DAY by date   
  Go back one day Go forward one day

Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
1956: Mystery of missing frogman deepens

British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden has refused to reveal the details surrounding the disappearance of a naval diver during a goodwill visit by the Soviet leadership.

But he told a packed House of Commons "the appropriate disciplinary steps" were being taken - heightening speculation that Commander Lionel "Buster" Crabb was on a secret spying mission for which permission had not been granted.

Commander Crabb was reported missing, presumed dead, by the Admiralty on 29 April. The official statement said he had died following a test dive at Stokes Bay, near Portsmouth, on the Hampshire coast.

In fact, it is now known he was last seen on 19 April - the day after a Soviet cruiser carrying Soviet leaders Nikita Khruschev and Marshal Nikolai Bulganin arrived in Portsmouth harbour.

On 4 May the Soviet Government protested to the Foreign Office that a frogman had been seen in the vicinity of their ship, the Ordzhonikidze, during their stay.


"Appropriate disciplinary steps are being taken"

Sir Anthony Eden

In his statement Sir Anthony told MPs: "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 prime minister refused to add another word to his statement, despite repeated attempts from Labour MPs to get him to do so. It seems clear that he was attempting to distance the British Government from Commander Crabb's activities so as not to upset the Russians.

At one point Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell warned the prime minister that his refusal to expand on his original statement would lead the public to the inevitable conclusion that Commander Crabb had indeed been on a spying mission.

The prime minister replied: "You are entitled to put any wording you like upon what I have said."

Commander Crabb was last seen leaving the Sally Port Hotel in Portsmouth on the morning of 19 April.

He had checked into the hotel two days before with another man, who signed himself Matthew Smith.

Both men apparently checked out of the hotel in the afternoon of Commander Crabb's disappearance.

Several pages of the hotel register were later found to be missing.

Commander Crabb entered the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in 1940 and became involved in mine and bomb disposal. He later won the George Medal for his work removing limpet mines from the bottoms of ships during the war.

By the time of his disappearance he had been released from the navy and his friends said he was short of money.

He is said to have told friends that he was "going down to take a dekko at the Russian bottoms" for which he would earn 60 guineas.

In Context
It appears that Lionel Crabb was on a spying mission for MI6 - unbeknown to the prime minister. The statement by the Admiralty was an attempt to cover up the mission but when the Soviets claimed to have seen a frogman Sir Anthony Eden was forced to speak out. Sir John Alexander Sinclair, head of MI6 was subsequently forced to resign.

The headless body of a man in the remains of a diving suit was found in Chichester harbour in 1957. A coroner concluded that it was Crabb's body and it was buried with his silver-mounted swordstick.

Ten years later a human skull was found partly buried in sand at Chichester harbour. Although there were several teeth in the jaw they had no distinguishing marks which could link them to Crabb, but a pathologist claimed the skull was the same age as the torso.

Rumours about what really happened to Commander Crabb continued to circulate in the media. One theory was that he had been killed by a new anti-frogman device fitted experimentally to the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze or a sniper on the deck.

Other reports claimed Commander Crabb was alive and well and living in the Soviet Union or East Germany or that he had been taken prisoner by the Russians.

The Cabinet papers concerning the Crabb affair will remain secret until 2057.


Search ON THIS DAY by date   
  Go back one day Go forward one day

Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
^^ Back to top |