Former Portsmouth Evening News journalist Mike Knipe was a cub reporter in 1956 and had the nerve to walk into the Keppel’s Head Hotel on The Hard to try to interview Marshal Ivan Serov, the head of the KGB.
Seventeen-year-old Mike was given short shrift by the city’s chief constable and he left without his interview.
The Soviet cruiser Ordzhenikidze was tied up alongside South Railway Jetty and as we know, Commander Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb disappeared. What became of him is still open to speculation, but at the time of his disappearance Serov was in the city.
Serov had joined the Red Army in 1923 aged 17. He survived Stalin’s Great Purge after 1934 and in 1937 was charged with the execution of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky another nasty Russian who shot hostages out of hand during the civil war. Along with other leading Red Army commanders who might have got in the way of Stalin’s efforts to get to the top, they were all shot in the back of the head.
So, here was Serov sitting having lunch in a Portsea hotel with Chief Constable Arthur Charles West.
The Cold War was at its height. The news that Khrushchev and Bulganin were coming to Britain was hugely controversial and the revelation that their arrival would be preceded by a visit from Marshal Serov caused a storm in the national papers. Serov was described as ‘Ivan the Terrible’ and ‘The Butcher’ and the Daily Mirror campaigned to have him banned.
Knipe had been a junior reporter on the paper for only a couple of months when he got a phone call from a taxi driver saying he had just picked up Serov at the town station and taken him to Keppel’s Head.
Until that moment nobody had a clue that Serov was in Britain. He attempted to tell the only senior reporter in the news room but he was rushing off, no doubt for a lunchtime pint, and didn’t want to listen.
Knipe decided he’d better do something and finding the chief photographer they headed for the Keppel’s Head. Knipe walked in and straight into the dining room where he saw a party of men dining. He recognised the chief constable.
With the sort of confidence that only a 17-year-old might have, Knipe marched over and asked: ‘May I have a word with Marshal Serov?’ The police chief quickly replied that it was a private lunch and could not be interrupted, so Mike retreated and returned to the office.
Knipe said he found the chief sub editor, Jim Bayes – a man feared by junior reporters. ‘Excuse me, Mr Bayes,’ Mike said.
‘Yes, what is it?’ he replied. ‘I think I might have an important story,’ Knipe said, explaining with slight exaggeration he had ‘just interviewed Marshal Serov at the Keppel’s Head’.
This brought Bayes up sharp. He took Knipe by the shoulders, walked him to a typewriter and said, very gently, ‘write every word about it. Every word’. This he did, although, in truth, there wasn’t much he could write. However, it made the paper.
Soon after this, The News and the nationals were full of stories about Crabb’s mysterious death. He had died, apparently, while attaching or attempting to attach a listening device to the hull of the Ordzhenikidze. The incident caused a major diplomatic row.
In 1977 a retired Soviet sailor told a documentary team that in 1956 he had been in a group ordered to investigate suspicious activity around the ship. When they saw the silhouette of a diver in a frogman’s suit fiddling with something on the starboard side of the hull, one of them grabbed Crabb’s feet, dragged him down and cut his air supply before slashing his throat and allowing the body to float away with the tide.
It had already emerged that on April 17, 1956, Crabb had checked into the Sally Port hotel in Portsmouth with a Mr Smith, believed to be an MI6 naval liaison officer. Admiralty officials concocted a story that Crabb disappeared while testing secret diving equipment three miles from where the Soviet ships were at anchor.
The government was embarrassed by the clumsily-staged spying mission. Prime minister Anthony Eden told the Commons it would ‘not be in the public interest’ to disclose the circumstances of Crabb’s death. He added that ‘what was done, was done without the authority or knowledge of ministers’.
Eden was furious because he claimed to have ordered that no spying missions be undertaken during the Russian visit, but had been disobeyed.
Years later Sydney Knowles, who had once been Crabb’s Royal Navy diving buddy, claimed that not long after the departure of Krushchev, Bulganin and Serov, he had been ordered by MI5 to identify a body as Crabb, when he knew it was definitely not Crabb.
Soon after his controversial visit to Portsmouth, Serov played a key role for the Soviet Union when the Hungarian revolution overthrew the communist government. He was responsible for arresting the revolutionaries including their leader Imre Nagy.