When the body was found near Chichester and lifted from the water, the head fell off and disappeared. The hands were already gone. Only the old-fashioned Navy frogman drysuit permitted some sort of identification.
The authorities said it was the last remains of the missing frogman Buster Crabb, and his mother could at last give her son a grave and a headstone, which she did. It reads:
In Loving Memory of My Son, Commander Lionel Crabb RNVR GM OBE At Rest At Last.
But Cdr Crabb wasnt allowed to die for the next 40 years, for nobody believed that he was really dead. Even his mother! So Fleet Street turned poor Crabb into an everlasting mystery story.
Only now, thousands of acres of newsprint and 10 books later, do we really know what happened to the frogman spy, the man who disappeared after trying to examine the hull of a Russian cruiser in Portsmouth Harbour in 1956.
At that time, the Royal Navy, the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, MI5 and MI6, all said it was nothing to do with them. But the Russians kicked up merry hell about frogmen secretly surveying the hull of the warship which had brought Soviet Premier Kruschev and Marshal Bulganin on a good-will visit to Britain.
A measure of how sensitive the Government still finds the matter is the fact that the Cabinet Papers concerning the Crabb affair, which should have become open to the public under the 30-year rule in 1986, are now to remain sealed until 2057!
But the readers of Diver need not wait that long. For, thanks to an inquisitive and enterprising Israeli journalist, Yigal Serna, we can end the speculation about what actually happened.
The story of Cdr Lionel Kenneth Philip Crabb, George Medal, OBE, RNVR, begins early in World War Two.
In 1942, as a Lieutenant and a swiftly-trained demolitions officer with no real experience, Crabb was appointed mine and disposal officer of Gibraltar. Italian frogmen of the Italian navys Tenth Light Flotilla had already sunk several ships in Gibraltar harbour and a naval underwater working party was hard at work searching the underside of ships in the port for other mines. Crabbs job was to dispose of any brought up by naval divers.
However, Crabb thought he should learn to dive himself in order to do his job properly. The navy divers had no suits (only overalls), no fins (just plimsolls), and used Davis Submarine Escape Apparatus to breathe. Crabb made his first dive with this primitive gear and from then on was part of the underwater defence of shipping at Gibraltar.
Very soon after his first dive he found and removed a mine clamp- ed to the bilge keel of the steamer Willowdale, and although the mine was of a type unknown to anyone in Gibraltar, Crabb safely defused it.
From then on Crabbs life was one damned mine after another and diving from dawn to dusk every day for weeks at a time. Finally, the Italian frogmens attacks stopped and Crabbie (as his friends called him) was awarded the George Medal for his work in Gibraltar. He was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander and was then switched to become Principal Diving Officer for Northern Italy. When the war moved on he was in charge of clearing Venice of mines and opening the port to shipping.
When this job was complete, Crabb was given an OBE and, in December 1945, was moved again to Palestine to head an underwater bomb disposal team. It was back to searching ships hulls as terrorists were planting mines under British ships and police patrol launches. Finally, in 1947, Crabb was demobilised.
It was at this stage that he seems to have entered the mysterious world of underwater espionage, employed by the Admiralty on secret diving work.
Certainly, in January 1950 he dived with another frogman, Jimmy Hodges, on the RN submarine HMS Truculent which had sunk with all hands in the Thames Estuary. This was a last desperate attempt to find out if anyone was still alive in her. There wasnt.
Crabb was seen again by Fleet Street reporters on board the Navy deep-diving ship HMS Reclaim when her underwater cameras found another lost Royal Navy submarine, the Affray, in 1951.
In 1953, Crabb is believed to have done some secret work in the Suez Canal, and in 1954 he spent the summer working for the Duke of Argyll, diving without success to find the Tobermory galleon.
Now the mystery thickens. What did Lionel Crabb actually do for the Admiralty and to whom was he responsible The Navy Lists of 1955 and 1956 have him back in the Navy and promoted: Commander (Special Branch) L.K.P.Crabb, RNVR, GM, OBE, HMS Vernon.
People at Vernon recall him living in a caravan in a field and wearing the uniform of a Commander. At other times he was seen in Ports- mouth, always wearing a fawn tweed suit, pork-pie hat and never without a sword-stick with a big silver knob engraved with a golden crab.
According to the authors of Frogman Spy, published by W.H. Allen in 1990, frogman Sydney Knowles was approached by Crabb in October 1955 to join him on a small job in Portsmouth.
This small job turned out to be a hull inspection of the Soviet cruiser Sverdlov, which both the British and Americans considered fantastically manoeuvrable and wanted to know why. The ship was in British waters to take part in the Spithead naval review, and the job was to be carried out under the auspices of Americas CIA. Knowles says that he and Crabb dived under the Sverdlov at night. At the bow they found a large circular opening in the bottom of the hull. Knowles waited at the edge while Crabb went up inside the hole where he examined a large propeller, which it seemed could be lowered and directed to give thrust to the bow.
The success of this mission seems to have led to the decision to get Crabb to look at the hull of the Russian cruiser Ordzhonikidze, which was bringing Kruschev and Bulganin to Britain. This time he was to search for special anti-sonar gear or mine-laying hatches beneath her.
Crabb was now 46, not very fit, and a notoriously heavy drinker. Together with another man he took two rooms at the Sally Port Hotel in High Street, Portsmouth, on the evening of Tuesday, 17 April, 1956.
The Soviet ships arrived the next day, and the Ordzhonikidze moored at the South Railway jetty in the RN Dockyard. Two Russian destroyers tied up alongside.
That night Crabb had drinks with old friends in Havant and was last seen catching a train back to Portsmouth. After that he simply disappeared. He didnt turn up for breakfast the next morning. His companion paid the bill in cash for the two rooms and left, carrying both mens bags. Crabbs room had been cleared of all his belongings, including his sword-stick. He was never seen alive again.
Ten days later, following the departure of the Ordzhonikidze, the first story broke in Fleet Street papers, just a brief paragraph about the famous frogman Buster Crabb, saying that he had failed to surface from a dive near Portsmouth.
This was the trigger that fired a story that was to last for 40 years, for Fleet Streets news editors put two and two together and got the right answer - Crabb had been diving in Portsmouth when the Russian warships were in Portsmouth, and Crabbs wartime exploits were all about examining the hulls of ships, werent they
By nightfall, the Sally Port Hotel was full of reporters!
It is interesting to note that one of the BSACs best known divers, ex-Chairman and Vice-President Nic Flemming, was staying at the Sally Port at the same time as Crabb. Nic was then an officer in the Special Boat Service and was in Portsmouth on diving exercises. Today he recalls the bar at the Sally Port suddenly filling up with lots of people asking lots of questions!
The Admiralty, under pressure, finally stated that Commander Crabb was missing, presumed drowned, having failed to surface after a dive when experimenting with secret equipment. Under more pressure, the Admiralty said that the dive had taken place in Stokes Bay, some three miles from Portsmouth Harbour.
This statement did nothing to silence the Press, for Fleet Street suspected that the Navy was trying to give them the run-around. And the story went into orbit when reporters discovered that the pages of the hotel register containing the names of Crabb, his companion (Mr Smith), and, indeed, of all staying at the hotel at the time, had been torn out!
Now the Russians started taking a hand. The Soviet Ambassador made a protest to the Foreign Office about a frogman having been seen near the Russian ships in Portsmouth, adding that The Embassy would be grateful to the British Foreign Office to receive an explanation.
Newspaper headlines put the Foreign Office in a spot and threw the Government into turmoil. The Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, had, it seems, forbidden any form of spying during the Russian visit to Britain. But the Foreign Office reply to the Soviet Embassy read: As has already been publicly announced, Commander Crabb was engaged in diving tests and is presumed to have met his death whilst so engaged.
The diver, who, as stated in the Soviet note, was observed from the Soviet warships to be swimming between the Soviet destroyers, was presumably Commander Crabb. His approach to the destroyers was completely unauthorised and Her Majestys Government desire to express their regret at the incident.
In a crowded House of Commons Sir Anthony refused to go further, claiming that it would not be in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which Commander Crabb is presumed to have met his death. Hugh Gaitskell led the Opposition uproar. Five times he demanded more details and five times Sir Anthony refused.
In the years that followed, the Buster Crabb saga would not lie down, and rumours were rife. One of the strongest was that Crabb was not dead at all, but had been captured by Russian frogmen after his breathing equipment went wrong under the Russian cruiser, taken back to Russia and brainwashed into working for the Russian secret service, training their frogman teams.
It sounded ridiculous, but Cdr J.S. Kerans, of HMS Amethyst and Yangtse River fame, then MP for Hartlepool, opened the matter publicly in 1960 by saying:I am convinced that Commander Lionel Crabb is alive and in Russian hands - the Government must reopen this case. The answer was No. Then in 1964, MP Marcus Lipton submitted what he called new evidence to the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, but he too refused to respond.
And so it went on: Crabb was in Moscows Lefortowo prison and his prison number was 147; he was a Commander in the Russian Navy under the name of Lev Lvovich Korablov; he was CO of the Soviet Special Task Underwater Operational Command in the Black Sea Fleet; he had not been captured at all but had defected to the Russians to get himself accepted so that he could pass Soviet secrets to MI6. A double agent no less!
Over the years, other stories included Crabb having been electrocuted by special steel netting under all Russian ships. Then he was seen in London. Then in Paris. Then in a special cancer sanitorium in Russia.
In 1987, The Times reported that the Buster Crabb mystery would not be completely unravelled for another 70 years because of a Government decision to keep closed that part of the 1956 Cabinet Papers - despite the rule which usually made such documents public after 30 years. It seemed the world would have to wait until the year 2057.
But enter Israeli journalist Yigal Serna, who heard that an immigrant to Israel in 1990 knew how Crabb had died. The immigrant was Joseph Zverkin, former head of Soviet Naval Intelligence, a man in his nineties, living in Haifa, who had spent some time under cover as a spy in England during the 1950s.
Fascinated by the Crabb mystery, Yigal Serna arranged meetings with Zverkin, who was suspicious about questions regarding Crabb and refused at first to discuss the matter.
But in a report sent to Diver by Nic Flemming, Yigal Serna reveals what Zverkin finally told him: Only at our third meeting did he tell me about Crabb, writes Serna. He spoke in very precise, heavily accented English. He said that in 1956, when the event happened, he was in England, under the code name of a German citizen. In his (Zverkins) own words, this is what happened to Crabb:
Crabb was discovered when he was swimming on the water next to the ship by a watchman, who was at a height of 20 metres. An order was given to inspect the water and two people on the deck were equipped with sniper guns - small calibre. One of them was an ordinary seaman, and the other an officer, the equivalent of a lieutenant, who was in charge of an artillery unit on the boat, and an exceptional shot.
Crabb dived next to the boat and came up and swam - perhaps because of air poisoning. The lieutenant shot him in the head and killed him. He sank. All the stories about him being caught by us or that he was a Russian spy are not true.
So now, it seems, we can finally write the somewhat unromantic end to the long-running mystery story of Lionel Buster Crabb that has engaged so many people for so many years.