PETER FROST recalls some British secret service skulduggery from 60 years ago.
Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, had a busy year in 1956. In January he had made his famous “secret speech” exposing the cult of personality that had developed around his predecessor Josef Stalin, but by April he was in Britain on a diplomatic visit.
In those far-off days Khrushchev chose not to fly to London but to come by ship. Sixty years ago in April 1956 the cold war was at its height but that didn’t stop three Soviet naval vessels tying up alongside a pier in the naval dockyard at Portsmouth.
The Soviet leaders had arrived on the Soviet Navy battle cruiser Ordzhonikidze. This state-of-the-art battleship had been built in 1950 as part of the Sverdlov class of warships and named after the Georgian Bolshevik, and close comrade of Stalin, Grigol Ordzhonikidze.
Recently released but previously secret CIA intelligence reports show the British government saw the trip as both a diplomatic opportunity and a propaganda hazard.
It was desperate to avoid the kind of enthusiastic reception the Soviet leaders had enjoyed on recent visits to India and Burma. They were even more worried by Soviet efforts to forge links with the British Labour Party, then led by Hugh Gaitskell.
Khrushchev (below) and Nikolai Bulganin spent eight full days in Britain, and their schedule included three days of talks at Downing Street.
They had dinner with Tory prime minister Anthony Eden twice, and also visited him at Chequers.
The various arms of the British secret service, Special Branch, MI5 and MI6 and their transatlantic cousins at the CIA were all in a complete state of panic. Goodwill visits such as this were not part of their plan for making the cold war colder still.
They hatched what would turn out to be a disastrous plan but whether it was a simple provocation, a bungled attempt at espionage or more likely a combination of the two is still a mystery some 60 years after the fact.
Most of the papers that refer to the events have never been released and probably never will.
Among the excuses for not releasing some of the secret documents is that they have become contaminated by asbestos. One is tempted to ask whether they discovered that when they tried to burn the evidence.
So what do we know? Well, we certainly know that on April 19 1956 the ex-Royal Navy, ex-Special Branch frogman Lionel Crabb — always known as Buster — almost certainly working on behalf of MI6, slipped into the waters of Portsmouth dockyard and swam towards the hull of the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze.
Just about everything after that is subject to dispute and a heavy dose of deliberate obfuscation.
We do know that Buster Crabb was widely believed to be Ian Fleming’s inspiration for the character of James Bond. Fleming had served as a naval intelligence officer in the war and his novel and film script Thunderball is loosely based on Crabb’s adventures, including the Ordzhonikidze incident.
The mystery frogman, Lionel Kenneth Phillip Crabb OBE, GM, has a biography that reads like a Boy’s Own Paper hero. Born poor in Peckham in 1909 he trained for a career at sea and then joined the merchant navy and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve before World War II.
In Gibraltar he worked in mine and bomb disposal removing Italian limpet mines that enemy divers had attached to the hulls of allied ships.
Initially, Crabb’s job was to disarm mines that divers had removed, but eventually he decided to learn to dive.
He was awarded the George Medal for his efforts and was promoted to lieutenant commander. By this time he had gained the nickname Buster.
After the war Crabb was stationed in Palestine and led an underwater explosives disposal team that removed mines placed by the Irgun, the zionist militant group. After 1947, he was demobilised from the military.
Crabb moved to a civilian job and used his diving skills to explore the wreck of a Spanish galleon and he located a suitable site for a discharge pipe for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston.
He later returned to work for the Royal Navy, carrying out rescue dives on sunken Royal Navy submarines — the HMS Truculent in January 1950 and HMS Affray in 1951 — to find out whether there were any survivors. Both efforts were fruitless.
By 1955 Crabb was working undercover investigating the hull of the Soviet cruiser Sverdlov to evaluate its superior manoeuvrability. Despite heavy drinking and smoking affecting his health, he was recruited by MI6.
It seems Crabb disappeared in Portsmouth harbour and was never seen alive again. We do know he was staying in room 20 at the Sally Port hotel in Portsmouth.
Later, his bill was paid for by someone believed to be his MI6 controller who also tore out the page he had signed in the hotel register.
It took 10 days for the British authorities to react to the frogman’s disappearance. The official cover story said Crabb was feared drowned while exploding a experimental secret mine in Stokes Bay — some miles to the west of Portsmouth Naval Dockyard.
In a 1990 interview Joseph Zwerkin, a former member of Soviet naval intelligence who had moved to Israel after the break-up of the Soviet Union, claimed that the crew of the Soviet ship had spotted Crabb in the water and that a sentry had shot him.
The entire incident caused a major diplomatic row. Soviet officials accused British intelligence of spying on their warship.
Predictably Eden (below) said he had forbidden any spying on the Soviet leader. Few believed his protestations then and fewer do today.
The official explanation was that a body — with its head and hands cut off — had washed up on the coast of southern England 14 months later. They claimed the body was that of Lionel Crabb.
The very few files that have been declassified have many lines blacked out. The Ministry of Defence says it cannot release its files because they were contaminated with asbestos during storage.
The official who formally identified the headless body now says he was officially ordered to lie. If any further papers are released it will not be until 2057.
Today there are a thousand stories, a dozen books and countless theories about the fate of Buster Crabb. One says he was murdered by MI5 to stop him defecting to the Soviet Union. Will we ever know the truth? Sadly, probably not.
There are always going to be dark and dodgy dealings from our secret services that will never see the light of day. Personally, I believe in the old journalist’s maxim: “Never believe a story until it has been officially denied.”
This article appeared in the Morning Star 21 April 2016.