The Magazine for Underwater Professionals
Commander Crabb: What Really Happened?, by Dr John Bevan
For almost 60 years the strange case of British frogman-spy Lt-Cdr Lionel Crabb has captivated the public imagination, and not least generations of divers. For anyone unfamiliar with the story, the naval war hero, by 1956 an ageing freelance, was engaged to carry out a covert dive on a Russian cruiser in Portsmouth Harbour during an official visit by President Khrushchev. He failed to return from the mission, although a headless body was recovered some months later off Chichester and subsequently identified as his.
So far so simple, but the fact that a rare 100-year-long embargo was placed on release of official files connected with the case suggests that it was anything but simple. Naturally this concealment has led to a plethora of conspiracy theories over the years.
I have read several books about the Crabb affair, most recently The Crabb Enigma by Mike and Jacqui Welham, which I reviewed four years ago. Their conclusion, like that of others, was that Crabb had not died but had been captured, secreted away to the USSR and worked for the state either voluntarily or after being “turned”. Their book was full of fascinating conjecture about Crabb’s connections with royalty, rubber fetishism, homosexuality and communism.
All colourful and hard to resist for the casual reader, but it’s clear that hard-headed diving historian John Bevan, although he doesn’t say it in so many words, has little time for such flights of fancy. His is a short, forensic book, and he is concerned not with Crabb’s shadowy connections and proclivities but with his state of health, the dive itself and its aftermath. I won’t spoil this further chapter in the ongoing detective saga by revealing the author’s conclusions, other than to say that they are rather more prosaic than those of the Welhams but make perfect sense.
What still concerns me slightly, however, is that 100-year black-out. The spy-dive itself was not really that big a deal, even at the time, as Bevan makes plain. So even if the embargo has more to do with official embarrassment about an elaborate cover-up by the security services of a bungled piece of espionage, surely enough time has passed by now for the curtains to be drawn back? Perhaps it would take something like a disreputable royal connection to maintain such an official silence after all this time. Bevan doesn’t address this directly, but we can be sure that the continuing silence will still be fuelling interest in the case if and when the truth emerges 40 years from now.
No one who has followed the Crabb case as it resurfaces every few years can fail to find this new book an interesting and readable addition to the accumulating list of titles on the subject. It’s the most enduring story in diving, and despite the confident title of his book, I doubt whether even John Bevan believes that his valuable contribution will be the final word.