He would have been easier to abandon if things went awry...
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.
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 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."
On 30 April speculative stories appeared in the press and, by nightfall, the Sally Port Inn was full of journalists many of whom were in the bar asking lots of questions. Then, when Daily Mail reporters discovered that pages were missing from the inn register, an all-out press campaign was launched.
A furious Prime Minister Anthony Eden was finally informed about what had happened after reading of it in the press. Questioned vigorously in the Commons on 10 May, he commented:
"It would not be in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which Commander Crabb is presumed to have met his death."
This sentiment was taken on board and remains to this day. On 14 May the Chief Constable of the crime office in Chichester wrote to all police authorities in Portsmouth instructing them not to inform the press if Commander Crabb’s body was found. It thus seems to be a strange coincidence that on 9 June 1957 a badly decomposed body of a middle-aged man in a black rubber suit was found floating in Chichester harbour. The head, upper torso and arms were missing. At the inquest the Coroner found the body was that of Commander Crabb but he was unable to determine the cause of death.
This should have been the end of the matter but things didn’t ring true and (following in the footsteps of many others) Bevan, using the most up to date evidence, has drawn some conclusions. He believes that, following Crabb’s death, his body was caught up in the assortment of debris that is known to have accumulated under the South Railway Jetty. It (the body) was later recovered by naval divers who were then instructed by top brass in the security agencies to store it in a secure sea water location. When the time was right, its re-appearance in Chichester Harbour was orchestrated a respectable time after the Soviet warships had departed and press interest had dissipated. However, 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.