The Mystery of Buster Crabb

The truth will remain hidden long after all those involved have died...

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An all-time great spy mystery...

In 1956 the inn came briefly into the international news spotlight when the disappearance of one of the guests, Commander Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb, led to a huge political row and one of the all-time great spy / mystery stories. Unfortunately, the decision to extend the security classification for documents relating to Crabb’s disappearance to 2057 has ensured that the truth of the matter will remain hidden until long after all those involved have died. Despite this, John Bevan’s book, "Commander Crabb. What really happened?", published in 2014 contains the most up to date information about the affair based on information gleaned from published books, documents released by the National Archives under the Freedom of Information Act in 2006 and a personal investigation. The following account is largely based on Bevan’s findings.

He would have been easier to abandon if things went awry...

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The story begins...

On 18 April 1956 Soviet leaders, Marshal Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, arrived in Portsmouth on a ten day state visit aboard the cruiser, Ordzhonikidze accompanied by two destroyers the Sovershenny and the Smotryashchie. At that time the Admiralty was very interested in several underwater facets of the cruiser and MI6 commissioned Commander Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb to dive down and carry out a survey operation. Until it was too late, Secret Intelligence Service (S.I.S) chiefs claimed not to see an order from the Prime Minster, sent on 17 April, forbidding any surveillance operations against the Russians. On the face of it, the British Secret Service’s choice of Commander Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb as a frogman to spy on the Ordzhonikidze was unusual. A heavy smoker and drinker, Crabb was in poor physical shape and working as a furniture salesman; having just been retired from the Navy due to his age. He was, however, an experienced and fearless diver and, as a civilian, he would have been easier to abandon if things went awry.

Commander Crabb takes the dive...

Crabb spent that evening in Havant, trying to find a diving partner. Failing to find one, he returned to the Sally Port where he had checked in the previous day. Before dawn on 19 April Crabb and Matthew (aka Bernard) Smith of MI6, left the inn and walked to Portsmouth Dockyard. They were joined by Lieutenant Commander George Franklin, Senior Clearance Diver at the Diving School in HMS Vernon and escorted into the Dockyard by Chief Detective Superintendent Lamport, their police liaison officer. Smith and Lamport then left Crabb and Franklin on board the launch from HMS Maidstone, moored at the South Camber, about 70 metres from the Ordzhonikidze.

Shortly before 7am Crabb slipped into the water assisted by Franklin. His oxygen supply and carbon dioxide absorbent were capable of lasting a maximum of 2 hours. Twenty minutes later, Crabb returned cold and breathless complaining that the visibility was bad. Franklin checked the equipment and Crabb went into the water again. At that point he was cold, tired and had used up part of his oxygen supply. Given his age and low level of fitness his resistance to oxygen and carbon dioxide poisoning would have been reduced.



Between 7.30 and 8.00 am three Soviet sailors on the Sovershenny briefly saw a diver face up on the surface between the sterns of the two destroyers, this was almost definitely Commander Crabb. That he surfaced at all meant he was probably in serious trouble and his position between the two destroyers suggests he had lost his bearings. Nobody ever saw him alive again.

At 9.15 am Franklin carried out a fruitless search for Crabb in Maidstone’s launch. Then, after Smith reported Crabb missing to Portsmouth’s Chief Constable and a local representative of the Naval Intelligence Division, a further unproductive search took place. At 11.30 am Smith paid his and Crabb’s bills at the Sally Port Inn, collected their bags and returned to London. Crabb’s room was cleared of all his belongings, including his well-known sword-stick with large silver knob engraved with a golden crab.

Relevant steps were taken to uphold the decision of the Admiralty that the top priority was to prevent the story breaking while the Russians were still in England. On 27 April Jack Lamport went to the Sally Port Inn, removed two pages bearing the details of Cdr Crabb and Smith from the inn register and later destroyed them.

…as a result of trials with certain underwater apparatus. The location of the trials was in Stokes Bay, and it is nine days since the accident.

the Admiralty eventually announced Crabb’s disappearance on 29 April

Speculation & Mystery

"the top brass clearly didn’t foresee the continuing interest of the likes of Bevan who is currently pressing for the 100-year embargo on disclosure of the truth to be lifted."