Royal Naval Museum



Medals of Lieutenant Commander Lionel "Buster" Crabb GM, OBE, RNVR

The mystery surrounding ‘Buster’ Crabb is one that has captured and fascinated the media and public for the past fifty years.

Buster CrabbAs a Lieutenant during the Second World War, Crabb served with distinction at Gibraltar as a demolitions diver defusing limpet mines, which were regularly placed by Italian frogman on the undersides of British ships. For his work in Gibraltar, Crabb was awarded the George Medal and promoted Lieutenant-Commander. In the latter stages of the war, Crabb became Principal Diving Officer for Northern Italy and was responsible for clearing Venice of mines, thereby opening the port to shipping. For this he was appointed Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE).

Crabb demobilised in 1947 but it appears he transferred to under-water espionage, diving on the submarine HMS Truculent, which had sunk with all hands in 1950. He appears in the Navy Lists of 1955 and 1956 as Commander (Special Branch) L K P Crabb RNVR GM OBE HMS Vernon.

In 1955, Crabb was approached for a ‘little job’ in Portsmouth harbour. This turned out to be the examination of the hulls of the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikadze, and her destroyer escorts Smotriaschi, and Sovershenny which were on an official visit with the joint Soviet leaders Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khruschev. On 17th April 1956 Crabb and a colleague booked into the Sally Port Hotel in Old Portsmouth. The Russian ships arrived the next day. The following day, Crabb failed to turn up for breakfast, his colleague paid both bills and cleared the two rooms. Ten days later Crabb’s disappearance appeared in national newspapers stating he was missing after a dive in Portsmouth, but at the height of the Cold War the coincidence of the visit of the Russian ships and Crabb’s expertise, caused great embarrassment to the government.

Soviet Navy

Russian Cruiser Ordzhonikadze

A later statement from the Admiralty said Crabb was missing after experimenting with secret diving equipment off Stokes Bay, three miles from Portsmouth harbour. Newspaper interest intensified when it was found that the page from the visitor’s book at the Sally Port Hotel with Crabb’s entry had been removed. The following June a body was recovered from Chichester harbour by fisherman. The body was wearing a diver’s suit but was badly decomposed and the head and hands were missing so positive identification was impossible. Identification came from his ex-wife and a long-term friend and diving partner of Cdr Crabb who later claimed the body was not Cdr Crabb but that he had been pressured into saying it was. The body was buried in Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth under Crabbs’s name.

The fate of Cdr Crabb is still a mystery as Government papers due for public release in 1987 under the 30 year rule have been extended and will now not be made public until 2057. Some rumours claim that he defected to Russia or was captured and brainwashed into the Russian secret service. Other claims suggest he was forced to surface near the Russian ships either from failure of his breathing apparatus or a heart attack and was captured by Russian frogman and died on board the Russian ship. Whatever the truth the story of Cdr Crabb and his disappearance remains an intriguing story of Cold War espionage.      

Commander Crabb

Medals of Cdr Crabb, from left OBE, George Medal, 1939-45 Star, Atlantic Star, Italy Star, Defence Medal, 1939-45 War Medal

To find out more about Buster's life, why not visit the Navy's People section on the Sea Your History website?

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