I don’t know who the two fishermen pulled out of the high tide off tiny Pilsey Island (above)on June 9, 1957. It was probably the earthly remains of Commander Lionel “Buster” Crabb. But the body had been in the water for so long that when they lifted the corpse into the boat the head fell off and was lost amongst the mud flats. The hands were already gone, whether by accident or design. Margaret Player, Lionel’s ex-wife, could not identity what was left and neither could his current girlfriend, Patricia Rose. At the inquest a diving partner, William McLanachan, identified a scar on the left knee as Lionel’s, but later recanted.DNA technology was still a half century in the future, but still the evidence seems convincing. The diving suit matched the 2 piece type Lionel had been wearing. The stature of the corpse matched his. The body hair matched. The clothing Lionel had been wearing under the suit, matched. Even the “hammer toes” of the corpse matched photographs of Lionel Crabb’s feet. The coroner ruled that it was Lionel Crabb and that he was dead. And if the suspected body was claimed to have belonged to anyone else but Commander Lionel Crabb, the mystery would have ended right there, in the tidal flats of Chichester Harbor, 17 miles to the east of Plymouth Harbor. But what if I suggest that the body was claimed to be that of Commander James Bond? Would you still be so certain?Lionel Crabb didn’t look like the movie version of James Bond, but he was a dead ringer for the Bond from the books. He hated to exercise. He was a chain smoker, and an aficionado of “boilermakers” (whisky with a beer chaser). He distrusted academics and experts (he would have shot Q long ago). And Lionel couldn’t swim three lengths of a swimming pool without collapsing from exhaustion. Still, a friend described him as having, “…a singular ability to endure discomfort…His lack of fear was unquestioned….(a) curmudgeonly but kindly bantam cock,…a most pleasant and lively individual. (However) His penchant for alcohol remained undiminished.”Lionel Crabb started out as a Merchant seaman. And when World War Two began he was already thirty years old, well past his physical prime. He joined the Royal Navy in 1940 and eventually ended up as a bomb safety officer on Gibraltar, a job requiring calm dedication and not for a dare devil. But that is where the legend of Commander “Buster” Crabb really begins.
Across the straights from Gibralter, in Algeria, was a force of Italian divers who were skillfully planting limpet mines on British transports and warships in the anchorage of Gibraltar Harbor (above). Lionel became part of the team assigned to protect those ships.
He learned to dive in the war zone, wearing the bulky “Sladen Suits” (above), often referred to as “Clammy Death”, and using the ancestor of the aqualung, the re-breathers invented by the American Dr. Lambersten. The British team didn’t even have swim fins until two Italian divers where machine gunned by a sentry one night and Lionel retrieved their fins and started using them out of curiosity.Working often in the black of night Lionel would inspect hulls for any sign of explosives, then carefully remove them, bringing them to the surface and disarming them, which was the only part of the job he had actually been trained for. For his work Lionel was awarded the St. George Medal in 1944. By that time he was commanding the entire unit. Lionel was a pioneer in the field, learning to disarm the new German magnetic mines. In August of 1945 he was assigned to disarm mines placed by Zionists terrorists on shipping in the port of Haifa. He received another medal for his role in disarming mines and explosives in Europe left over from World War II. And in 1949 Lionel managed to produce underwater photographs of a British cruiser’s spinning propellers while the big ship plowed through the sea within feet of him. He explored a British submarine lost in the Thames esturary (above), and helped build the outflow system for a top secret nuclear weapons factory. Lionel had become the “go-to guy” on anything involving underwater espionage, not because he was a genius at it but because he was the only person doing it.Lionel was released from active service in 1953 but remained in the Reserves. And in October of 1955, when the new Soviet cruiser Sverdlov paid a “good will” visited to Portsmouth, Lionel and a friend, Sydney Knowles, made nighttime dives, examining and measuring the hull, in an attempt to explain the ship’s powerful maneuvering abilities. And so both men seemed obvious picks to repeat that dive in April of 1956 when the Soviet Cruiser Ordzhonikidze (above) paid call to Portsmouth carrying Premier Nikolai Bulganin and Communist Party Leader, Nikita Khrushchev on a state visit.The matter might never have become public knowledge except that after the visit the Soviets filed an offical protest that a British diver was seen close to the Soviet cruiser on April 19th. Lionel’s war record had made him the most famous diver in Britain, and the press quickly tracked him to the Sally Port hotel in Old Portsmouth (above) where he registered the night before the incident. (The day after the press discovered the ledger, the page was ripped out of the book.) The British navy eventually claimed that Lionel had been testing new diving equipment in the Solent to the West of Portsmouth, when he had disappeared and was presumed to have drowned. But that story seemed so absurd it produced even more speculation. It is speculated that the new British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, had hopes of reaching a rapprochement with the Soviet leadership and had forbidden Lionel from making this second dive inside Portsmouth harbor. But the CIA and reactionary factions within the British government had stepped in to encourage Lionel to make the attempt even without official endorsement. Those who believe this version are either pro or con toward Anthony Eden’s alleged policy of appeasement. What we do know about this version is that Eden issued a public statement on May 14, saying that “It would not be in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which Commander Crabb is presumed to have met his death. I think it necessary, in the special circumstances of this case, to make it clear that what was done was done without the authority or the knowledge of Her Majesty’s Ministers. Appropriate disciplinary steps are being taken.” Shortly thereafter the head of Britain’s MI6 was relieved.But from this point the stories only multiply. In 2007 Eduard Koltsov claimed he had been a diver onboard the Cruiser Ordzhonikidze when, while on underwater patrol, he spotted Lionel fixing a mine to the Soviet ship, and had cut his throat. Lionel’s fiancé claimed in 1974 that he had defected and was training Soviet frogmen in the Black Sea. Another version says Lionel suffered a heart attack while inspecting the Ordzhonikidze, had been rescued by Soviet divers but had died on board the Soviet ship, perhaps under torture, perhaps several days later, and that they dumped his body overboard after leaving port.What we know for certain is that on April 17, 1956 Lionel and another man checked into the Sally Port Hotel, in Portsmouth. On the 18th, Lionel entered the water from The King’s Stairs Jetty (above), about 80 yards from where the Soviet warship was berthed. Lionel returned to the surface just 20 minutes later, having gotten confused in the dark amongst the pier’s pilings. The decision was made to try again in daylight.
Lionel returned to the jetty just after 7 a.m on April 18th, in full daylight this time, and re-entered the waters of Portsmouth harbor (above). He came back up just 20 minutes later complaining of some problem with his equipment. Repairs were made, and within a few minutes Lionel went down again for another try. But this time he did not resurface, at least not until fourteen months later when his body was supposedly pulled from the shallow tidal inlet some seventeen miles further up the coast, to the West. But was that really the body of Commander Lionel Crabb? We still don’t know for certain, and won’t until at least 2057, when the British government has promised to tell all they know.
Of course they had originally promised to do that in 1987, but then they changed their minds. They could do that again, too.
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