Secret files chart MI6 blunders after Cold War disappearance of diver Buster Crabb in Portsmouth Harbour

Lionel 'Buster' Crabb
Lionel 'Buster' Crabb
Have your say

SECRET documents have revealed ministers feared the body of a Royal Navy diver who vanished while spying on a Russian warship could have been used for propaganda.

Buster Crabb was on an MI6 operation when he disappeared under a Soviet warship in Portsmouth Harbour in 1956 – sparking a mystery that continues to this day.

While the documents, released from the National Archive at Kew, west London, do not reveal how he died they lay bare MI6 involvement.

But Dr John Bevan, of Gosport, who has written a book about Cdr Crabb, said the information had previously been released under freedom of information.

He said: ‘Obviously this will get a bit more publicity which is good and maybe they will release the information earlier than 100 years.’

Dr Bevan added he wants information released relating to how Cdr Crabb’s body ended up in Chichester Harbour.

Mark Dunton, contemporary records specialist at the National Archives, said: ‘While the files don’t solve the mystery of exactly how Cdr Crabb met his death, they lay bare all of the blunders surrounding that operation in its entirety for the first time.’

The mishap left security chiefs, senior civil servants and top ministers scrambling to cover up an operation that was bungled so badly it bordered on ‘criminal folly’.

An inquiry found that Bernard Smith, the MI6 agent handling Commander Crabb, booked them into the Sally Port Inn using their real names and addresses in the register, sparking fears they could be traced.

And it emerged that people outside the operation knew Cdr Crabb was diving in Portsmouth.

The papers show there was a deep concern that an inquest could cause huge public embarrassment.

Whitehall officials considered three possible outcomes – he had been spotted by the Russians and taken aboard alive; that he had been destroyed by Russian ‘counter measures’ and that his body was aboard the warship or still in the water, or that he had suffered a ‘natural mishap’.

Officials felt it most likely that his body was still in the water after being killed by Russian counter-measures and there were fears that ‘if it was aboard the Russian ship, they might produce it for propaganda purposes at an opportune moment either dead or alive, or they might dispose of it after leaving Portsmouth’.

It was later decided his family would be told ‘he had disappeared while on some secret Admiralty work’.

The Home Office felt it could persuade a coroner to ‘avoid awkward questions’, but it was agreed to issue a certificate of presumption of death.

But it was so serious it led to an inquiry led by Secretary to the Treasury Sir Edward Bridges.

It emerged the operation was sanctioned only because of misunderstandings between the Foreign Office and a senior MI6 officer.

A memo revealed that Bridges ‘was satisfied that the Crabb operation was a thoroughly bad and unplanned one’.