Was Royal Navy Commander 'Buster' Crabb a Double Agent?


Lieutenant Commander Lionel 'Buster' Crabb of the Royal Navy, pictured at Livorno in Northern Italy during the Second World War. Daily Mirror Library/Mirrorpix via Getty Image

In April 1956, Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin docked in British waters for a diplomatic visit. While the ship was in port, ex Royal Navy frogman Commander Lionel "Buster" Crabb, undertook a mission to spy on the Soviet warship, the Ordzhonikidze, for the secret British intelligence organization MI6. But once Crabb went under, he never came back up.

His disappearance sparked a national embarrassment for Britain, scotched their talks with Russia and caused years of speculation that haven't yet abated. So what happened to Commander Crabb? That's what Stuff They Don't Want You To Know hosts Matt Frederick, Ben Bowlin and Noel Brown dive into in the latest episode of the podcast.

Crabb was first an army gunner, then he joined the Royal Navy in 1941. His job was to disarm mines Italian divers attached to Allied ships with magnets, but then he decided to learn how to dive himself, despite not being a very good swimmer. His missions took him to Gibraltar, Northern Italy and Palestine before he was demobilized from the military. That's when MI6 recruited him in 1956 to investigate the propellers of Russian ships. This time, it was Khrushchev's and Bulganin's Ordzhonikidze.

Crabb dove down once and came back up 20 minutes later because of faulty equipment. He dove down a second time, but was never again seen alive.

A year later, a body was discovered by fishermen, but it wasn't clear if it was Crabb. The body was decapitated and both hands were missing, making identification, at least in the late '50s, extremely difficult. The body was examined several times by Crabb's ex-wife, his fiancée and his diving partner Sydney Knowles, but none could say definitively that it was him. However, the body was said by officials to be Crabb and he was formally declared dead.

That hasn't stopped the speculation, though; thanks to a bumbling coverup undertaken by British intelligence immediately following Crabb's disappearance, the story made waves, and those ripples are still being felt. Theories abound as to how — or even if — Crabb died. A Soviet frogman named Eduard Koltsov came forward in 2007 claiming to have killed Crabb. Koltsov said he caught Crabb placing a mine on the hull of the Ordzhonikidze while Khrushchev was on board, so he slit Crabb's throat, earning him a Red Star medal for his bravery.

But it's been argued that Britain would never have tried to place and detonate a mine when the Soviets were visiting the U.K. on a diplomatic mission. Additionally, Koltsov's story has been refuted in Russian newspapers, which claim there's no evidence he was awarded any medals or was ever a frogman at all.

Many conspiracies around Crabb's disappearance and death abound, including one that he was spying for — and planning to defect to — Russia, which led to his murder by British security service MI5. Some suggest he never died at all. What do Matt, Ben and Noel think? And how does James Bond fit into Commander Crabb's story? You'll have to listen to the podcast for all of the details.



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