Date: 19 Apr 1956
Lionel Crabb vanished after diving around the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze when it was in Portsmouth Harbour during a diplomatic visit on 19 April 1956.
His disappearance was a complete mystery and a wide range of theories suggesting what happened evolved which were amplified by the circumstances around his disappearance and the government’s attempts to silence the matter in order to prevent a diplomatic incident.
A headless and handless body was later found in the sea in 1957 and whilst not at first identified as Lionel Crabb, it was later said to have been his.
It was said that he disappeared during a secret reconnaissance mission around the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze after it brought Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin to Britain on a diplomatic mission.
His disappearance was not made public until after the cruiser left but even then the Admiralty and the government had tried to cover it up which made the affair more incendiary after the press got hold of it.
In October 2015 official government papers were made available at the National Archives in Kew, London, that showed that Lionel Crabb had been on a spying missing which was described as having been 'thoroughly bad and unplanned'. The mission was also said to have been unauthorised by the Prime Minister.
The first known newspaper articles on his disappearance were on 30 April 1956, three weeks after he disappeared.
An entry in The Northern Whig dated Monday 30 April 1956, read, 'Commander Lionel Crabb (46), a pioneer of the Royal Navy's Wartime frogmen, has been 'presumed dead' after failing to return from an underwater trial'.
The Belfast Newsletter of the same date ran the same first paragraph with the additional information: The Admiralty stated last night: 'He did not return from a test dive which took place in connection with trials of certain underwater apparatus in Stokes Bay, in the Portsmouth area, about a week ago'. Commander Crabb was attached to the Admiralty during the war. He was sent to Gibraltar as a mine and bomb disposal officer and organised apparatus so that men could search under ships for limpet mines. That was among the first operation of the frogmen. In January, 1944, he was awarded the George Medal for gallantry and undaunted devotion to duty'. After the war he joined the Admiralty's research group as a civilian, but again appeared in the public eye during the frogmen's attempt to reach the men of the submarine Truculent which sank in the Thames estuary in January 1950. Commander Crabb tried to join the Navy in 1939, but he said: 'The doctor seemed surprised I was still alive when he examined me'. He was rejected, but joined the Merchant Navy as a carpenter, and somehow slipped into the Royal Navy'.
The Belfast Telegraph also ran a story on his disappearance on Monday 30 April 1956, stating that he was missing presumed dead following underwater trials in the Portsmouth area. The report additionally noted that whilst working as a bomb disposal officer at Gibraltar in 1942 Lionel Crabb had found that Italian frogmen were entering the harbour to attack shipping. It was further noted that he had helped to clear Leghorn Harbour of mines in 1943 and that he had persuaded captured Italian frogmen to clear Venice Harbour. It was also reported that Lionel Crabb had been in charge of the winch that lowered a television camera to identify the Affray which was lost off Alderney in April 1951. He had also led the divers that had searched Tobermory Bay in 1954 for a Spanish galleon believed to have contained about £3m worth of gold, as valued at the time. It was also noted that the closest secrecy was being maintained over his death in Portsmouth and stated that the Admiralty statement that he was missing and presumed drowned meant that the police in Portsmouth might not have necessarily been informed of his death.
On Tuesday 1 May 1956 the Bradford Observer reported that a naval inquiry would probably be held at Portsmouth at the end of the week into Lionel Crabb's death 'ten days' earlier, noting that he died during secret underwater experiments in the Solent and that the inquiry would be held in camera (in secret). It additionally noted that Commander Crabb's death had not been announced before because of the secret nature of his work. It stated that his body had not been recovered.
However, on 7 May 1956 it was revealed that Lionel Crabb had gone missing on a secret underwater mission at Portsmouth near the B and K Soviet warships and that a 'Whitehall high-up' had tried to conceal the truth and had issued a 'silence order', telling members of his family to say nothing unless asked and only then to say that Lionel Crabb was presumed dead after failing to return from an underwater trial with no other information other than it had involved 'certain underwater equipment'. It was also said that even in the Admiralty it was doubted that more than a dozen people knew what Lionel Crabb was doing at Portsmouth when he disappeared. It was also noted that security men went to the Sally Port Hotel in High Street, Portsmouth where Lionel Crabb had stayed, under his own name, and had ripped out four pages of their register that had his name and address on it.
Following on from the disclosure it was heard that the Prime Ministers Cabinet had demanded the name of the person in Whitehall that had tried to hide the truth and had insisted on 'silence at all costs', after which the mystery behind his death blossomed into a range of theories and included the 2007 claim that he had been killed by a Russian frogman that had been patrolling the bottom of the warships. The story continued to evolve years later after the 2015 release of previously secret government files that detailed the affair.
A range of theories emerged soon after within official corridors, as disclosed by the 2015 document release, namely that:
However, over the years other theories developed, including:
There were also later sightings of him which included:
A set of bones were found in September 1956 on Hayling Sandbank and because of the speculation that they belonged to Lionel Crabb an inquest was held on them. The Coroner said 'that he would not ordinarily carry out an inquest on a set of bones, noting that they were natural in some cases, but that he was doing so to dispel the rumours that they were those of Lionel Crabb'. An open verdict was returned, it being said that the bones were those of a person that had probably died over 12 months earlier, precluding the possibility that they could have belonged to Lionel Crabb.
However, what was thought to have been his body was later found on 9 June 1957 near Chichester although the head and hands were missing. Although it was first said by the pathologist that the body was impossible to identify because of the missing parts, it was found to match his general description and to have been wearing the same frogman's outfit that he had been wearing. After the inquest opened the pathologist went back to the body and examined it and found two scars, an inverted Y on the left side of his knee and another scar, about the size of a sixpenny coin, both of which he photographed as evidence of identification, it being said that Lionel Crabb had the same scars.
When the inquest opened on Tuesday 11 June 1957, it was heard that Lionel Crabb's wife had been unable to identify his body at the Bognor Regis mortuary. However, it was heard that she had been basing her identification on the fact that Lionel Crabb had had hammer toes and it was said that the lengthy immersion of his body in the water had distorted his feet, meaning that she was unable to identify the remains on that basis.
At the first hearing the pathologist said, 'I do not think we shall ever know the cause of the frogman's death'. It was heard that the fact that his head and hands were missing was not unusual as they could have been naturally detached through the actions of the sea.
When the inquest opened, it was heard that the remains were 'those of an unidentified man'.
Shortly after the inquest was ajourned, a spokesman for the US Navy in Britain denied that Lionel Crabb had been working for the US Intelligence Services at the time of his dissapearance.
The body had been wearing clothing that consisted of:
However, an Admiralty expert who had visited Chichester and examined the frogman's equipment after it had been removed from the mortuary and taken to Chichester Police Station did not give any indication whether the equipment was official Admiralty issue or not.
However, when the inquest concluded on Wednesday 26 June 1957 the Coroner said that he was satisfied that the remains of the frogman taken from the sea near Chichester Harbour on 9 June 1957 were those of Commander Lionel Crabb. However, the inquest heard that there was no evidence as to the cause of death and an open verdict was returned. It was also noted however that his wife did not think that the body was that of her husband.
Although it was known that Lionel Crabb had been demobilised in 1947 after heading an underwater bomb disposal team in Palestine, it was not clear what he had done after that, although it was thought that he had become involved with underwater espionage and was carrying out secret diving work for the Admiralty.
It was said that in October 1955 that Lionel Crabb was asked to inspect the hull of the Sverdlov, a Soviet cruiser which was known for its manoeuvrability. The operation was said to have been carried out under the auspices of the CIA whilst the Sverdlov was in British waters. It was said that whilst Lionel Crabb was under the cruiser he found that it had an additional propeller in the hull that could be directed in various ways to give additional thrust to the bow.
It was said that following that that Lionel Crabb was asked to look at the hull of the Ordzhonikidze when it arrived at Portsmouth as it was thought that it had special anti-sonar gear or mine-laying hatches beneath her.
It was observed that he was 46-years-old at the time and was described as being not very fit and a heavy drinker. and it was also suggested that he might have died from a heart attack whilst under water.
The Ordzhonikidze arrived in Portsmouth on 18 April 1956 and was tied up on the South Railway jetty in the Royal Navy Dockyard along with two destroyers.
Lionel Crabb had arrived in Portsmouth on 17 April 1956 with a friend and on the night of 18 April 1956 had gone out with some friends for drinks in Havant after which he was seen catching a train back to Portsmouth, but he was never seen again and failed to turn up for breakfast the following morning. It was further noted that although Lionel Crabb had vanished, his friend, who was thought to have gone out on the mission with him, had also left the hotel, taking both his own and Lionel Crabb's suitcases with him, having paid the bill in cash.
It was said that the news of his disappearance was not made public until after the Ordzhonikidze had left harbour, and even then efforts had been made to silence it, with the story that he had gone missing whilst carrying out underwater trials near Portsmouth.
The 2015 release of documents at the National Archives were said to have detailed how the government press holders were to say how Lionel Crabb had died, noting that he was a war hero and holder of the George Medal and had been blown up whilst working with an experimental mine in Stokes Bay, a few miles from Portsmouth.
However, it was said that because of Lionel Crabb's high profile, that reporters had looked into the claims and had realised that Lionel Crabb was a specialist at diving beneath warships and that the Russian Ordzhonikidze had been in Portsmouth at the time and it was said that before too long the Sally Port Hotel was full of reporters who then discovered that the hotel register had four pages missing from it, resulting in contagious speculation about what had happened.
It was further noted in the 2015 document release that the matter of the missing pages from the hotel register should be blamed on the police who they were to say had been working on their own initiative. It was further found that the government documents had instructed government press agents to say that they could say nothing about the experimental trials, but could confirm that it had nothing to do with the Soviet vessels in Portsmouth at the time and that because of the nature of the experimental trial that there was no hope of Lionel Crabb's survival after a certain amount of time under water. The brief also stated that no other details were to be divulged, with the note, 'We suggest [this] simply because we can think of no answer which would not involve telling lies which might be exposed and which would be even slightly convincing'.
The 2015 document release also showed that officials had described the spying mission that Lionel Crabb had been on as bordering on criminal folly. In the documents the Secretary to the Treasury Sir Edward Bridges described the mission as 'thoroughly bad and unplanned' and said, 'No serious steps seemed to have been taken to conceal the movements of the participants or to plan any cover story'. The documents revealed that the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, had made it clear that spying during the Soviet visit was forbidden, but that MI6 had mistakenly thought a Foreign Office advisor had authorised the activity.
The documents also discussed the efforts to find Lionel Crabb's body following his disappearance, a secret draft paper saying, 'Any thorough search, involving diving and dredging would be an extensive and expensive operation... but a search by divers along the face of the jetty could be done in a week (cost about £60). This could not be kept secret'.
It was noted that although some documents were released in 2015, other Cabinet documents that should also have been opened after 30 years in 1985 were ordered to be sealed until 2057.
It was said that following the activity of the press, the Soviet Ambassador made a protest to the Foreign Office about a frogman having been seen near the Ordzhonikidze whilst in Portsmouth and asked for an explanation. However, they were told the same story.
It was said that the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, had forbidden any form of spying during the Soviet visit to Britain and that the dive beneath the ships had been unauthorised.
The Prime Minister was questioned over the matter in Parliament but said that it would not be in the public interest to disclose the circumstances of Lionel Crabb's disappearance even though he was asked by the opposition in the House five times for more information.
It was noted that in 1960 the MP for Hartlepool, J Kerans publicly stated, 'I am convinced that Commander Lionel Crabb is alive and in Russian hands, the Government must reopen this case'. However, nothing was done.
Then again, in 1964, the MP for Brixton, Marcus Lipton, put forward new evidence and requested the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, to respond, but he didn't.
It was also claimed that a Russian spy, recruited at Cambridge, had heard of Lionel Crabb's mission through his MI6 connections and had warned the Soviets who had in turn been waiting for him.
In 2007 a retired Soviet sailor said that he had been ordered to dive beneath the Ordzhonikidze on the morning of 19 April 1956 and had encountered a frogman and had cut his throat during an underwater fight. The stories that accompanied his claims included pictures of him with memorabilia of his hanging on a wall which included a knife that he said he cut Lionel Crabb's throat with.
The mystery of Lionel Crabb's death had inspired Ian Fleming to write the James Bond novel Thunderball.
After Lionel Crabb was buried, his headstone read, 'In Loving Memory of My Son, Commander Lionel Crabb RNVR GM OBE At Rest At Last'.
see Diver Net
see The Guardian
see The Guardian
see Daily Mail
see The Vintage News
see Daily Mail
see The Times
see Navy Net
see Secret Bases
see Catholic Standard - Friday 01 June 1956
see Bradford Observer - Saturday 14 July 1956
see Birmingham Daily Post - Wednesday 12 June 1957
see Bradford Observer - Thursday 10 May 1956
see Belfast Telegraph - Wednesday 26 June 1957
see Northern Whig - Thursday 27 June 1957
see Coventry Evening Telegraph - Friday 29 June 1956
see Bradford Observer - Wednesday 09 May 1956