25 September 2007

The Crabb Affair

Lionel “Buster” Crabb was a complex man. By turns he was a naval officer, hero, pioneer scuba diver and intelligence operative.

He was so complex that the Cabinet files on him are sealed for another fifty years. They will not be available for us to examine until 2057, a century downstream from the end of the government that failed to take responsibility for his disappearance.   

The Olympic swimmer and movie actor Larry “Buster” Crabb, from which the powerful derived his nickname, lived on until 1983, when a heart attack killed him in Scottsdale, Arizona. He lived a full life, which Commander Crabb didn't.

Or did he?

The question has been troubling people in Her Majesty's government for a long time. Navy officers tried to re-open the case in the early 1960s and were rebuffed. A television producer petitioned the government for information about the Commander in the 1970s fand the 1980s for a thirty-year retrospective.

Fifty years later, some people are still alive, and they want to talk while they can. One of them is an old frogman named Sidney Knowles, who was with Commander Crabb on the first dive against the Soviet Sverdlov in 1955.

He says they found a mysterious portal with a propeller near the bow, a sort of primitive vectored thrust device. There had to be more secrets to be found.

Operation CLARET was a Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) response to a request for information on the under-hull configuration of the sleek new Soviet cruisers of the Sverdlov class.

Tit-for-tat underhull reconnaissance had been going on for more than a year. After Crabb and Knowles had swum against the Sverdlov in Portsmouth harbor, Royal Navy units visiting Leningrad reported swarms of underwater activity around them.

The opportunity for another visit to the underside of the new Russian warships was shortly presented. The cruiser Ordzhonikidze, sister to Sverdlov, brought Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin, the Soviet Prime Minister, to Portsmouth for a state visit on 18 April, 1956.

Commander Crabb and an unidentified man checked into the Sally Port Hotel in the town that same evening. The other man was not Sidney Knowles, Crabb's usual diving partner, which is as much as in the public record tells.

The story then becomes as murky as the bottom of Portsmouth Harbor. Royal Navy divers may have conducted an underhull dive on the Soviet ship for purposes of harbor safety- a precaution against offensive collection by the Russians, not espionage. The Soviet crew many have been alerted to the presence of swimmers.

MI-6 was responsible for Operation CLARET, which was to be a detailed survey to satisfy Admiralty intelligence requirements.   Two dives were planned for the next day, the first an equipment test, which came off successfully. The second operational mission against the cruiser was a disaster. Crabb entered the water, dove deep and headed toward the Russian ship. He did not come up.

Ten days later, the Admiralty reported Commander Crabb missing and presumed dead. They said he had been lost during a test dive at Stokes Bay, on the Hampshire coast.

On 4 May, the Soviet Government protested to the British Foreign Office that a frogman had been seen in the vicinity of their ship.

With the Soviet protest, the press was aroused and the cat was out of the bag. The ledger from the Sally Port Hotel was discovered to have the critical pages cut out. The matter went to the front pages of the tabloids and wound up at Question Time in the House of Commons.

“Appropriate disciplinary steps are being taken,” said Prime Minister Anthony Eden to a packed House. “It would not be in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which Commander Crabb is presumed to have met his death.”

Sir John Alexander Sinclair, head of MI6, was subsequently forced to resign.

The headless and handless body of a man in the remains of a diving suit was found in Chichester harbor in 1957. Sidney Knowles identified the body at the time, something he says he was forced to do by the intelligence services.

The coroner accepted the identification of the body as Crabb's, and it was buried without hands or head with the Commander's silver-mounted swordstick.

Ten years later a human skull was found partly buried in sand at Chichester harbor. Although there were several teeth in the jaw they had no distinguishing marks linking them to the Commander, though a pathologist claimed the skull was the same age as the torso.

The case has refused to stay closed, regardless of what the Prime Minister desired. It has been claimed that Crabb, winner of the George Medal for valor, wanted to defect to the Soviets. Others said he had been captured, and still other versions hold that he had been killed by a new anti-frogman device fitted experimentally to the hull of the cruiser, or shot by a Soviet sniper from the deck.

The Commander has also been reported to alive and well on the other side of the Wall, or alternatively, once chief of the underwater reconnaissance team for the Red Banner Black Sea Fleet.

Whatever the truth might have been, you would think that the end of the Cold War would have freed it from the former Soviet Archives. That is why some maintain that the Commander had become an embarrassment in more ways than one, and the secrets were those of MI6.

The Russians would always say something like that, particularly at a moment when relations are again frosty between her Majesty and the Kremlin.

It is really a bit ironic. The sleek and tantalizing target of Operation CLARET was not precisely what she appeared to be.

You see, the Russians got an Italian cruiser as war booty in 1945.   That design was appropriated into the elegant Sverdlov. The high-tech Soviet ship was actually modeled on Mussolini's 1930s-vintage heavy cruiser Zara.

Commander Crabb died- or did not- on a mission to investigate a twenty-year-old, 55,000 ton Ferrari.

Copyright 2007 Vic Socotra

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