Mystery of the Missing Frogman

Commander Buster Crabb, Intelligence officer
Commander Buster Crabb, Intelligence officer

TO AVOID CONFUSION, I will mention right up front, that there are two well-known Buster Crabbs.  Buster Crabbe, was an American actor and sportsman that starred in such productions as Flash Gordon (1936).  Buster Crabb, without an “e,” also known as Commander Crabb, was a well-known British frogman of the day.  “The day” would be the mid-1950s.

In April of 1956, Commander Crabb wrote a letter to his mum and said he had to leave his home in London for a job in Portsmouth.  “And tear up this letter, as usual,” the cryptic post script he often put on correspondence that he felt might contain too much information.

The Royal Navy had not needed frogmen much by the mid-Fifties, so they retired him at age forty-six.  Buster Crabb was small and friendly, while the movie actor, Crabbe stood at over six feet tall.  The Commander had a real desire to “keep his feet wet and get his gills back.”  He had been going to Portsmouth frequently to do just that.

“It’s military intelligence,” guessed one friend, Willie, at a London pub.

“Aye, I reckon it is.  What else could it be?” Andy agreed with him.

Around April 18, Buster checked into Sallyport Hotel in Portsmouth with a “Mr. Smith.”  Crabb left the hotel the next morning.  Mr. Smith paid the hotel bills and collected Crabb’s effects and left.

When Crabb did not return to London and his concerned friends made inquiries, Naval officials encouraged them to keep mum.  About the same time, British Intelligence destroyed the April pages from the Sallyport Hotel register.

Why all the intrigue?

One possible reason could be that the Russian Soviet cruiser, Ordzhonikidze, had been visiting Portsmouth, with her destroyer escort.  Western naval experts of all sorts were curious about the Russian vessel, but relations between the Soviet Union and the West were more than strained.  The West was most curious about the design of the hull and the rudder, but any kind of clandestine surveillance was banned to prevent an incident.

A Soviet seaman swore he had seen a diver near his ship.  Was Crabb involved?  The British press smoldered with many conflicting accounts.  Then, a spokesman for the British Government stated that Crabb had met his end while conducting “frogman tests” in the area—nothing at all to do with the Russian ship.  The government expressed regret and said he did not have permission to be in the area.  Another report said that he had died as a result of defective gear.  No attempt was made to recover the body.

Crabb’s old colleagues thought that he surely must have been down there examining the hull of the Russian ship, as he had done six months prior when the Sverdlov came into Portsmouth.

Some different colleagues thought he had been doing a contract job for the CIA.

Other colleagues thought the Soviets caught him and killed him.  Some thought Crabb had been caught, grilled and imprisoned by them.  Some even thought he had decided to save his own life by going over to the other side.

To deepen the mystery, a headless, handless corpse washed up several miles from Portsmouth, about a year after Crabb’s disappearance.  It wore part of a frogman’s suit, an Italian make, preferred by Crabb.  Was it Crabb?  An inquiry declared it to be so, and the remains were buried without fanfare.

Accident victim?  Murder victim? Accident-on-purpose victim?  Russian prisoner-turned-informant?  Dead in Portsmouth, or survived and disappeared?


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