Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb

Diver and Royal Navy Commander

"a most engaging man of the highest integrity... as well as being the best frogman in the country, probably in the world".

Nicholas Elliott, colleague of Buster Crabb and head of MI6 London Station

Born in Streatham in 1909, Lionel Crabb (later nicknamed ‘Buster’ after the actor/swimmer with a similar surname) became a highly accomplished and innovative army diver during the Second World War.

Despite his namesake being an Olympic Champion in swimming at the 1932 games, ‘Buster’ Crabb was ironically a poor swimmer. He began life in the water through the Merchant Navy, transferring to the Royal Navy on the outbreak of the Second World War. He trained as a diver and chose to undertake bomb disposal duties. He was posted to the Rock of Gibraltar to combat the efforts of Italian frogmen. The Italians were extremely successful in sinking thousands of tons of Allied shipping through the use of manned torpedoes, midget submarines and limpet mines. Their exploits were dangerous, but not as dangerous as the efforts of Buster Crabb and his colleagues. British divers used depth charges, intercepted enemy torpedoes and had to carefully remove mines which had been applied to the hulls of Royal Navy ships anchored off Gibraltar. A turning point in their campaign came when captured Italian equipment was studied and then used by Crabb and his colleagues. Prior to this they had been using overalls, plimsolls and Submarine Escape Apparatus to breathe. For his success, Buster Crabb was awarded the George Medal in January 1944.

Buster moved on to work in the ports of Venice and Livorno later in the war (being awarded the OBE for his efforts) and was involved as an investigating diver at the site of the downed B-24 bomber which had been carrying General Sikorski of the Polish Army.

Matters became even more dangerous with the establishment of Irgun Zvai Leumi, a Zionist resistance movement willing to undertake terrorist acts against Britain in the eastern Mediterranean. Not only did they blow up the British administrative offices at the King David Hotel, killing ninety one people, but they also began attacking British ships with underwater explosives. It was Buster Crabb who was called in to defuse these devices.

His post war activities led to his death in mysterious circumstances. Much information is still classified, as he was probably involved in the secret world of underwater espionage. He was seemingly involved in a clandestine dive in 1955 in which he was instructed to inspect the hull of the Soviet Cruiser ‘Sverdlov’, a ship which surprised the British and Americans with its manoeuvrability. While the Sverdlov was anchored in Portsmouth, Crabb swam to the bottom of the ship to discover a large hole from which a propeller could be lowered to add thrust to the bow. This explained the manoeuvrability. This mission led to the idea of inspecting the Cruiser ‘Ordzhonikidze’, due in Porstmouth in 1956 for the visit of Russian Premier Nikita Khushchev.

After the Ordzhonikidze arrived in Portsmouth, Buster Crabb simply disappeared. He had been seen drinking with friends that day, but the following morning didn’t appear for breakfast at his hotel in Portsmouth. He was never seen alive again. Stories abound about him being a British spy, a Russian spy, being seen alive in London, in Paris, some even thought he had been taken back to the Soviet Union and brainwashed.

While much is still unclear, it appears that Commander Crabb’s body was probably discovered in June 1957 in Chichester Harbour, having been brought to the surface by fishermen. A vessel was sent out to them from the RAF Marine Craft Section who helped to untangle their fishing net. The body of Buster, still clad in a frogman suit was released. The lack of certainty in terms of identification was because the recovered frogman’s body was lacking a head and both hands…..