Underwater killer frogs

By 1930, Lieutenant Adone Del Cima, a squadron commander of the 10th Light Flotilla based in La Spezia, a branch of the Italian Navy stationed at Taranto, conceived a plan for attacking enemy ships by using manned torpedoes without risking Italian warships to direct combat. The unit also dubbed Decima Flottiglia MAS (Decima Flottiglia Mezzi d’Assalto), aka La Decima, or Xª MAS formed in 1939, was an elite naval brigade made from frogmen, sailors and naval commandos. They were organized in four different branches such as, the Gamma frogmen, manned torpedo craft, midget submarines and assault motorboat craft. The Italian naval brigade was following the tradition opened in World War I, on November 1, 1918, when Raffaele Paolucci and Raffaele Rossetti of the Regia Marina, rode a crude manned torpedo nicknamed (Mignatta or “leech”) into the harbour of Pula (today in Istria, Croatia), where they sank the Austro-Hungarian battleship SMS Viribus Unitis and the freighter Wien, using “limpet” (sea snail) magnetic mines. Without underwater breathing sets they had to keep their heads above water to breathe, so they were spotted and captured while trying to leave the harbour. In the 1920s, sport spearfishing without breathing apparatus became popular on the Mediterranean coast of France and Italy prompting the development of swimfins, diving masks and snorkels. In the 1930s Italian harpoon fishermen began using industrial or submarine-escape oxygen rebreathers, instigating scuba diving sport in Italy. That diving technique came soon to the attention of the Italian Royal Navy – Regia Marina  which founded the first underwater frogman unit, later imitated by the British Royal Navy and United States Navy. Capitano di Fregata Paolo Aloisi was the first commander of the 1ª Flottiglia Mezzi d’Assalto (“First Assault Vehicle Flotilla”), assisted by majors Teseo Tesei and Elios Toschi of the naval combat engineers. In 1941, Commander Vittorio Moccagatta reorganised the First Flotilla into the Decima Flottiglia MAS. The unit comprised a surface group operating fast explosive motor boats and a sub-surface weapons group, using manned torpedoes, called SLC (“siluri a lenta corsa” or “slow-running torpedoes”) also nicknamed “Maiale” or “Pig” and “Gamma” assault swimmers (nuotatori) using limpet mines. Moccagatta also created the frogman training school at the San Leopoldo base of the Italian Naval Academy in Livorno.

The Decima MAS actioned first after June 10, 1940, when Fascist Italy entered WWar II. In more than three years of war, the unit destroyed over 72,000 tons of Allied warships and over 130,000 tons of Allied merchant ships. The frogmen of the unit sank the British Royal Navy WW I built battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth, wrecked the heavy cruiser HMS York and the destroyer HMS Eridge, damaged the destroyer HMS Jervis and sank or badly damaged 20 other merchant ships including supply ships and tankers. During the course of WW II, the Decima MAS was awarded   the Golden Medal of Military Valour and individually its members were awarded a total of 29 Golden Medals, 104 Silver Medals and 33 Bronze Medals of Military Valour. However, only about 50 Gamma group assault swimmers graduated from the Frogmen School of the Italian Naval Infantry, due to the tough selection and training program in place. They used the advanced underwater dive suits, designed by Lt. Angelo Belloni of the Decima MAS Flotilla and were equipped with the Pirelli ARO rebreathers. Gamma frogmen carried two tanks of pure oxygen for about 6 hours of underwater breathing, a dive knife, a wrist compass and a dive watch. They could swim undetected underneath enemy vessels after being dropped discreetly in enemy waters by submarines or motor torpedo boat. They would then attach a 10-25 pound explosive charge or a limpet magnetic mine to the hull of the enemy ship. The rest of Italian Frogmen crews were trained in basic reconnaissance, sabotage, piloting of manned torpedo craft and assault boats. The delivery system used initially pressurized containers fitted to the Italian Navy submarines, so the divers could enter the water undetected while the sub remained submerged.

SLC Maiale manned torpedo – La Spezia









On 18 July, 1940, after the attack on the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kébir by the British, the Vichy government ordered the bombing of Gibraltar, the first raid causing only light damages to the chosen targets. Gibraltar came under a series of aerial bombardment from Vichy French aircraft and from aircraft of the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) based in Sardinia. Additionally, the fortress was the target of underwater attacks by the Italian Regia Marina commando frogmen unit (Decima Flotilla MAS) and their human torpedoes. A number of attacks were also carried out by Spanish and Gibraltarian agents acting on behalf of the German military intelligence, Abwehr. Inside the Rock of Gibraltar itself, miles of tunnels were excavated from the limestone to build an “underground city”. In the large man-made caverns, were built barracks, offices, and a fully equipped hospital with an operating theatre and X-ray equipment. The operation “Torch,” the Allied invasion of French North Africa in November 1942, was coordinated from the “Rock”. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of the operation, set up his headquarters in Gibraltar during the planning phase of the operation. On 26-27 July, 1940, “La Decima” attacked Valletta, the Fortress City capital of Malta, by two SLCs manned torpedoes and ten MAS assault motorboats. The task force was detected by the British radar so the British coastal batteries and aircraft opened fire killing 15 Decima MAS crewmen including Commander Moccagatta. Major Teseo Tesei and Petty Officer Alcide Pedretti, died by St. Elmo fort as they attempted to destroy the outer defenses of the harbour with their manned torpedo. Lieutenant Franco Costa and Sgt. Luigi Barla on the other torpedo became lost, scuttled their craft and swam ashore at St. George’s Bay two miles NW of Valletta. The British captured 18 Italian commandos and one MAS assault boat, after destroying the other assault boats and SLCs.


On September 24, 1940, French Vichy Air Force and Navy bombed Gibraltar again sinking the British armed trawler HMT Stella Sirius. On September 30, 1940, the Italian submarine Gondar that departed La Spezia for Alexandria, carrying three SLCs and four two-man crews, was spotted and attacked by British and Australian destroyers. The sub was damaged and forced to surface, then it was scuttled by the crew, before surrendering to British along with the Decima MAS crewmen.

                                                                            Adone Del Cima

On October 21, 1940, the Italian submarine Sciré, commanded by Commander Junio Valerio Borghese, departed La Spezia carrying three SLCs and four crews, for a planned attack on the British battleship Barham, stationed at Gibraltar naval base. Only one “maiale” got close to target, exploding their charge but without sinking the warship. The crewmen, Gino Birindelli and Damos Paccagnini, were captured by British but the other four (including Teseo Tesei) escaped to Spain and returned to Italy. Gino Birindelli received the Medaglia d’Oro (Gold Medal) al Valor Militare (MOVM) and his second, Damos Paccagnini, received the Medaglia d’Argento (Silver Medal) al Valore Militare (MAVM). On March 25, 1941, the Italian destroyers Crispi and Sella launched from 18 km off Suda Bay, Crete, 3 MTs motor assault boats of the Decima MAS, each carrying a 300 kg explosive charge in its bow. The one-pilot craft were launched by the destroyers against the heavy cruiser HMS York, the Norwegian tanker, Pericles, another tanker, and a cargo ship, badly damaging all of them. The disabled cruiser was later scuttled in shallow waters with demolition charges by her crew before the German capture of Crete. On September 10, 1941, the submarine Sciré departing from La Spezia carried three SLCs and eight crewmen at Gibraltar, where they sank three ships. All six crewmen swam back to Spain and returned safely to Italy, where they were decorated, together with the submarine crew. On December 3, 1941, the sub Sciré departed La Spezia carrying three SLCs to conduct a raid on Alexandria. From the island of Leros in the Aegean Sea, it loaded six manned torpedo crews: Luigi Durand de la Penne with Emilio Bianchi, Vincenzo Martellotta with Mario Marino, Antonio Marceglia and Spartaco Schergat. On December 19, the submarine Sciré released the manned torpedoes 2 km off Alexandria commercial harbour, so they could enter the harbour when the British opened the defence boom to let three of their destroyers pass. Luigi Durand de la Penne and his crewmate Emilio Bianchi successfully attached a limpet mine under HMS Valiant, but running out of oxygen they had to surface and were captured. The other four torpedo riders were also captured, but their mines sank the the battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth, the Norwegian tanker Sagona and badly damaged the destroyer HMS Jervis.

Licio Visintini watch            Luigi Durand de la Penne

In September of 1941, three SLCs attacked three merchant ships near Gibraltar, sinking one of them. After the attacks carried out by the sub Scirè, the commander of Decima MAS realised that due to the limitations of using a sub, a mothership for SLCs in Gibraltar would be more feasible as a secret base in neutral Spain. To establish such a base a member of the Decima MAS, Antonio Ramognino, rented a bungalow named Villa Carmela along the coast road near Algeciras, in front of a bay used by Allied convoys for mooring. Because Ramognino’s wife was a Spanish citizen, he had no troubles to set up a ‘home’ there. Five merchant ships were sunk or damaged, from July to September 1942 by combat frogmen swimming away from Villa Carmela with limpet mines. On the other hand, an Italian Olterra, scuttled at Algeciras in the Bay of Gibraltar by her crew after the entry of Italy in WW II (June 10, 1940), was used as observation post for those missions. In 1942 the ship was recovered by a special unit of the Decima MAS to be used as an undercover base for their SLCs attacking Allied shipping at Gibraltar. Once at docks, some of Olterra cargo holds and a boiler room were modified by Italian Navy skilled personnel led by Lieutenant Licio Visintini into a workshop for the assembling and maintenance of manned torpedoes. Their spare parts and other equipment were smuggled into Spain by men of the Decima MAS under the pretense of being materials for the ‘works’ on board Olterra. Eventually a sliding hatch was cut open with a special torch six feet below the waterline. That was the exit door of the manned torpedoes, which would launch their attacks from the flooding bilge, right beneath the workshop. The special unit in charge of the operations was dubbed Squadriglia Ursa Major. But on August 10, 1942, the sub Scirè sank, with the loss of all hands including 11 frogmen, depth charged by the British armed trawler Islay, in Haifa bay about 11 kilometres from the harbour. Islay was captained by Lieutenant Commander John Ross of North Shields, Tyne and Wear, who was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. Later after WW II, the wreck of Scirè, lying at a depth of 32 metres, became a popular diving site and training location for Shayetet (Flotilla) 13 of Israeli Navy. One of the security measures taken by the British Royal Navy after the summer incursions of Italian combat swimmers, was the deployment at Gibraltar of an underwater bomb disposal unit under the command of Lieutenant Lionel Crabb. They were equipped with a Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus (DSEA), an early type of oxygen rebreather invented in 1910 by Sir Robert Davis, head of Siebe Gorman and Co. Ltd. That system was inspired by the earlier Fleuss system and adopted by the British Royal Navy after further development by Davis in 1927. While intended primarily as an emergency escape apparatus for submarine crews it was soon also used for diving, being a handy shallow water diving apparatus with a thirty minute endurance and as an industrial breathing set. In April 1942, the British Navy formed the “Experimental Submarine Flotilla”, initially based at Portsmouth. It was led by Commanders G.M. Sladen and W.R. “Tiny” Fell, who began to train in secret their frogmen. The Navy called their manned torpedoes “chariots” and their riders “charioteers”. Many of their frogmen breathing oxygen cylinder sets were pilot oxygen cylinders recovered from shot-down German Luftwaffe planes. The first breathing sets were modified Davis Submarine Escape Sets with full face diving masks designed for the Siebe Gorman Salvus. Later different designs were introduced leading to a full face diving mask with one big face window, some having a flip-up single window for both eyes to let the frogman use binoculars when on the surface. They used bulky thick diving suits called Sladen suits. In June 1942, the Experimental Submarine Flotilla moved to “Port D” on Loch Erisort in Scotland. Their first powered manned torpedo was the Mark I Chariot, 53 cm in diameter, that could reach 5.4 km/h, and dive safely to a depth of 6.1 m bearing a nose was a warhead with 600 pounds of high explosive. Training was particularly hard and the men often suffered from oxygen poisoning because the use of pure oxygen at depth caused burst eardrums and sinus trouble. They had to ride and steer their torpedo for a long time under water, then to cut through harbour defence nets. The hardest part was learning how to detach the Chariots’ warheads and fix it under the enemy ship bottom.

Meantime, by the autumn of 1942, Olterra was ready for the first mission. Her workshop fitting was completed and all the supplies smuggled from Italy had reached Spain without raising any suspicion of the local authorities. On December 6, 1942, after taking part in Operation “Torch,” a naval squadron consisting of the battleship HMS Nelson, the battlecruiser HMS Renown, the aircraft carriers HMS Furious, HMS Formidable and a number of escort units entered Gibraltar. Visintini planned a three manned torpedoes mission, each of them carrying two divers: the leading torpedo, driven by Visintini with Petty Officer Magro targeting Nelson, the second driven by 2nd Lieutenant Cella with Sergeant Leone targeting Furious and the third driven by Midshipman Manisco with Petty Officer Varini targeting Formidable. The assault craft departed from Olterra during the early hours of 8 December. Around 2 AM, the first human torpedo reached the area of the boom defences but the sentries inside the British base were activated and alerted to prevent any attack on the fleet at anchor. A pattern of depth charges was dropped by the motor launch at an interval of three minutes hitting the craft of Visintini and Magro with one charge and destroying it when they were trying to find a breach in the steel net protecting the harbour. Their bodies were recovered by the British some days later and buried at sea with full honors. According to some wartime reports, Visintini’s watch “Radiomir Panerai,“ was returned to his mother after the end of WW II by his former enemy, Lieutenant Lionel “Buster“ Crabb (head of the Underwater Working Party in Gibraltar). The second “maiale” after being uncovered by a searchlight, was chased by anti-submarine boats, forcing the Italian crew to scuttle their craft and hide on board an American freighter. They abandoned their swimsuits before submitting themselves to Gibraltar authorities. The last manned torpedo caught in the middle of the general alarm slipped beneath the waters and escaped the submarine chasers. The copilot, Leone, became missing during the pursuit and was never found. Cella, meanwhile, abandoned the craft elsewhere, close to the Spanish coast. Thinking of becoming a POW or being arrested and detained by Spanish authorities, Cella reached the secret base of Olterra and his torpedo was recovered by the Italians the following day. After the death of Visintini, Lieutenant Ernesto Notari took charge of the Ursa Major unit onboard Olterra. The end of the war in North Africa and the subsequent Allied landings in Sicily made the attacks on logistic ships a priority. In May 1943, Commander Borghese, of Scirè, was appointed commander of the Decima MAS. Lieutenant Notari, along with his second, Petty Officer Ario Lazzari, headed out to Gibraltar on manned torpedoes followed by Lieutenant Tadini with Petty Officer Mattera and by Second Lieutenant Cella with Petty Officer Montalenti. In order to divert any British suspicion from Olterra, the selected targets were merchant ships at anchor in the farthest point from Algeciras. They mined three vessels, the American Liberty ship Pat Harrison (7,000 t), the British freighters Mahsud (7,500 t) and Camerata (4,875 t). When the charges exploded, the American transport was damaged beyond repair, Mahsud rested on the bay’s bottom while Camerata sank completely. To mislead the British into thinking of combat swimmers instead of manned torpedoes, members of the Italian secret service scattered diving equipment along the shore.
To establish a network of saboteurs with access to Gibraltar in support of Italian Navy efforts against British Navy at Gibraltar, Abwehr contacted a Spanish staff officer from Campo de Gibraltar, Lieutenant Colonel Eleuterio Sánchez Rubio. A member of the Falange and coordinator of the intelligence operations in the Campo, Rubio designated Emilio Plazas Tejera, also a member of Falange, as operations chief of the organisation. Per the British intelligence accounts, there were at least 183 Spaniards and Gibraltarians involved in the espionage and sabotage operations against Gibraltar during WW II. Financed, trained and equipped by Germans, the saboteurs sank the armed trawler HMT Erin, and destroyed the auxiliary minesweeper HMT Honju, which killed six British seamen on January 18, 1942. Plazas was helped by the Spanish naval commander of Puente Mayorga, Manuel Romero Hume, who allowed him to beach a rowboat there. In March 1942, a Gibraltarian, José Key, one of the most prominent agents working for Germans, responsible for the collection of information on military movements for Abwehr was arrested and eventually executed in Wandsworth Prison in late 1942 by Albert Pierrepoint. In September 1942, Plazas, whose activities were closely monitored by the British at that time, resigned and left Carlos Calvo, his second in command, in charge of the operations. In late 1942, the German headquarters in Berlin ordered the sabotage operations being expanded. In early 1943, the arrival of an experienced head of Abwehr operations in Spain improved the outreach of the operations. In March 1943, an ammunition dump was blown up by Calvo’s agents. The British, growing suspicious of some of the saboteurs, banned them from entering Gibraltar forcing the Abwehr to ask Calvo to recruit new personnel. A Spaniard working on the Rock, José Martín Muñoz, was responsible for the explosion and fire at a large fuel tank at Coaling Island on June 30, 1943. The mission would be the first and the last for Muñoz, because he was cornered and arrested by British authorities in August, when he tried to smuggle a bomb into a weapons magazine inside Ragged Staff Cave. After being sentenced to death, he was hanged on January 11, 1944, in Gibraltar, by the famous British executioner, Albert Pierrepoint.    A member of an unrelated Abwehr sabotage network, Luis López Cordón-Cuenca (also arrested in 1943) was executed by Pierrepoint on the same day. Calvo himself was put under arrest by the Spanish police but he rejoined soon the Abwehr in Madrid, under direct orders of Wolfgang Blaum, aka Baumann, head of the sabotage section in Spain. After a Falangist attempt against the life of pro-allied General José Enrique Varela, perpetrated by Sánchez Rubio network’s agent Juan José Domínguez and a meeting between Anthony Eden and the Spanish ambassador at London, Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart, Abwehr activities around Gibraltar officially came to an end.
On July 25, 1943, Mussolini was removed from power, but despite the course of the war and the political changes, the Decima MAS continued to plan and execute attacks on Allied shipping in all fronts. On the night of August 3, 1943, the Ursa Major unit carried out the last operation against the “Rock,” when three craft left Olterra in search of their targets, three transport ships at anchor in the bay. Notari led the “SLCs” close to the Spanish coast to avoid the searchlights aimed at open sea. His second man was Petty Officer Andrea Gianoli, whose training on piloted torpedoes was poor. While the crew was clamping the explosive charge to the keel of a Liberty ship, their torpedo spun out of control. Notari opened the diving valves, and the “SLC” suddenly crash dived to a depth of 34 metres surfacing later just a few feet from their intended victim. Gianoli was left behind but after waiting two hours on the rudder of the ship, he shouted for help, then he was taken on board. A motor launch carrying a member of Lionel Crabb’s diving unit was dispatched to the scene and Crabb immediately suspected that the US “Harrison Grey Otis” ship had been mined. The torpedo warhead blew up just seconds before the British diver, Petty Officer Bell, could put his foot on the water killing one sailor and seriously injuring eight others. Otis was damaged beyond repair like her sister ship “Pat Harrison” in May, 1943. Two other Allied ships were also blown up at the same time on August 4, the Norwegian Thorshøvdi, (9,900 t) and British Stanridge (6,000 t). On September 8, 1943, Italy submitted to Allied terms so the war was over, even for Olterra. The next day, on September 9, 1943, after the proclamation of the armistice of Cassibile, the Regia Marina battleship Roma left La Spezia heading for La Maddalena, along with the rest of the battle squadron, with Admiral Carlo Bergamini on board. The fleet was on the way to Bona, Algeria, to surrender to Allied forces. A few hours later, off Asinara island, the squadron was attacked by German Dornier Do 217 bombers carrying Fritz X radio-controlled bombs. Two of them hit Roma, causing a violent deflagration of the forward ammunition magazines. Captain Del Cima and Admiral Bergamini went down with the ship along with 1,391 officers and sailors. Del Cima was posthumously awarded the Silver Medal of Military Valor, but the decoration was never handed over to his relatives.
After the end of WW II, Australian Lieutenant Commander Leon Goldsworthy, a specialist of a British RMS (Rendering Mines Safe) Section, admitted that British never found any proof of the part played by the Olterra in this affair. The Spanish authorities tried to hide the evidence, but when Crabb’s diving team boarded Olterra after the Italian armistice, they found spare parts from three different torpedoes. British reassembled a full manned torpedo (Emily), which was lost after six trials at open sea. Even though Olterra was scrapped in 1961, some bits of her outer plating bearing the ship’s name and a few portholes were salvaged and put into display at the Italian Naval Museum in La Spezia, along with a “barchino” assault explosive motor boat and a “maiale” manned torpedo.
Lieutenant Lionel “Buster” Crabb met some of his former enemies, including the last commander of the Ursa Major, Lieutenant Notari after the war end.   In 1945, Crabb cleared mines from the ports of Venice and Livorno and when the militant Zionist group Irgun began attacking British ships with underwater explosives, he was called in to defuse them. That was an extremely dangerous job, but Crabb survived and in 1947 was awarded the George Medal for “undaunted devotion to duty” and the OBE. Crabb also investigated a suitable discharge site for a pipe from the atomic weapons station at Aldermaston. Crabbe later returned to the Royal Navy and diving to investigate sunken Royal Navy submarines, the HMS Truculent in January 1950 and HMS Affray in 1951, to find any survivors but unsuccessfully. He was promoted to the rank of commander in 1952. In March 1955, Lionel “Buster” Crabb was forced to leave the navy on age grounds. According to Ben Macintyre: “He cut a remarkable figure in civilian life, wearing beige tweeds, a monocle and a pork pie hat, and carrying a Spanish swordstick with a silver knob carved into the shape of a crab. He worked, variously, as a model, undertaker and art salesman, but like many men who had seen vivid wartime action, he found peace a pallid disappointment.

On April 18, 1956, the Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin started a 10 day visit in UK on board cruiser “Ordzhonikidze,” accompanied by the destroyers “Sovershenni” and “Smotriaschi,” docking at Portsmouth. Because the scope of the visit was to improve Anglo-Soviet relations, Sir Anthony Eden, the British PM, in hope to moderate the Cold War, issued on April 17, a directive to all intelligence services, banning any operation against the Soviet leaders and their ships.

N.Khruschev and N.Bulganin in UK

However Nicholas Elliott, head of the MI6 London station, decided not to miss the opportunity and ten days before the visit put up a list of six operations to MI6’s Foreign Office adviser for approval. In the same time, MI5 decided to bug the rooms at Claridge Hotel that had been taken over by the Soviet delegation. The operation was a failure because Khrushchev did not reveal clues about the last days of Stalin, or to the fate of the KGB henchman Beria. During the day of the Soviet leaders’ arrival, Crabb checked in the Sally Port Hotel opposite the Cathedral of Thomas of Canterbury in the city of Portsmouth.

           Lionel Crabb with Sydney Knowles

Before dawn, on 19 April, Crabb and Matthew (aka Bernard) Smith of MI6, left the Sally Port Hotel and walked to Portsmouth Dockyard. They were joined by Lieutenant Commander George Franklin, Senior Clearance Diver at the Diving School in HMS Vernon and escorted into the Dockyard by Chief Detective Superintendent Lamport, their police liaison officer. Smith and Lamport then left Crabb and Franklin on board the launch from HMS Maidstone moored at the South Camber about 70 metres from the Ordzhonikidze.


Around 7 am Crabb dove in the water assisted by Franklin, with an oxygen supply and carbon dioxide absorbent for a maximum of 2 hours dive. Twenty minutes later, Crabb returned cold and almost breathless complaining that the visibility was bad. Franklin checked the equipment and Crabb went into the cold water again, tired and with the rest of his oxygen supply. At 47 years of age and lack of fitness, his resistance to oxygen and carbon dioxide poisoning would have been reduced. Between 7.30 and 8.00 am, three Soviet sailors on the Sovershenny briefly saw a diver face up on the surface between the sterns of the two destroyers. Commander Crabb was probably in serious trouble and his position between the two destroyers suggests he had lost his bearings, hence nobody ever saw him alive again. At 9.15 am Franklin carried out a fruitless search for Crabb in Maidstone’s launch. Then, after Smith reported Crabb missing to Portsmouth’s Chief Constable and a local representative of the Naval Intelligence Division, another futile search took place. Before noon Smith paid his and Crabb’s bills at the Sally Port Hotel, collected their bags and returned to London. Crabb’s room was cleared of all his belongings, including his well-known sword-stick with large silver knob engraved with a golden crab.
On 27 April, Jack Lamport went to the Sally Port Hotel, removed two pages bearing the details of Crabb and Smith from the hotel register and later destroyed them. On 30 April, speculative stories appeared in the press and, by nightfall, the Sally Port Hotel was full of journalists many of whom were in the bar asking lots of questions about Crabb. Then, when Daily Mail reporters discovered that pages were missing from the hotel register, media triggered an all-out press campaign. The Prime Minister Anthony Eden was eventually informed about the event only after reading of it in the press.
When questioned powerfully in the Commons on 10 May, he commented: “It would not be in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which Commander Crabb is presumed to have met his death.”

On 14 May, the Chief Constable of the crime office in Chichester wrote to all police authorities in Portsmouth, instructing them not to inform the press if Commander Crabb’s body was found. Coincidentally or not, on June 9, 1957, a badly decomposed body of a middle-aged man in a black rubber suit was found floating in Chichester harbour. The head, upper torso and arms were missing. His former wife saw the body and was unsure if it was Crabb. Pat Rose, his girlfriend, claimed it was not him but another friend, Sydney Knowles, said that Crabb, like the dead body, had a scar on the left knee.                                                                           Commander Lionel Crabb medals

The coroner recorded an open verdict but announced that he was satisfied that the remains were those of Crabb, but without determining the cause of death.
The design of the Sverdlov-class cruiser was obsessing NATO intelligence for years and the matter of confidentiality was the reason for the Soviet downing of a Swedish ELINT equipped spy-aircraft on June 13, 1952. The PM Anthony Eden, became outraged when he discovered that the MI6 operation had taken place without his permission. Eden pointed out in the House of Commons: “I think it is necessary, in the special circumstances of this case, to make it clear that what was done was without the authority or knowledge of Her Majesty’s Ministers”. Ten days later, Anthony Eden made another statement, making it clear that his explicit instructions had been disobeyed. PM Eden forced the Director-General of MI6, Major-General John Sinclair, to take early retirement, so he was replaced by Sir Dick White, the head of MI5. Furthermore on 29 April, under instructions from the Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral John Inglis, the Admiralty eventually announced that Commander Lionel Crabb had vanished when he had taken part in trials of secret underwater apparatus in Stokes Bay on the Solent. The Soviets replayed by releasing a statement that the crew of the cruiser Ordzhonikidze had seen a frogman near the cruiser on 19 April.









KGB General Pavel Sutoplatov                         Crabb’s case in UK press 

J. Bernard Hutton argues in his book Frogman Spy, published in 1960, that Crabb was captured alive during his espionage activities and was smuggled back to Soviet Union for torture and interrogation. According to Russian documents that Hutton allegedly had seen, Crabb later served as a diving officer in the Russian Navy. To help conceal the fate of Crabb, the Soviets dropped in the water a headless and handless body wearing Crabb’s equipment near the place where he was lost. Tim Binding wrote a fictionalized account of Crabb’s life, Man Overboard, published in 2005. Binding novel is based on the story that appeared in Frogman Spy. “His triumph is to have created a marvellous, anachronistic hero in a novel which not only tries to explain a famous mystery, but takes a hard look at what Britain lost when the war was won” (Daily Mail). Soon afterwards Binding was contacted by Sydney Knowles, the man who had originally identified Crabb’s body. Knowles told Binding that Crabb was murdered by MI5 when it was discovered that he intended to defect to the Soviet Union. According to Knowles, Crabb was instructed to carry out a spying operation on the Ordzhonikidze cruiser. Crabb was supplied with a new diving partner who killed him during the mission. Knowles alleges that he was ordered by MI5 to identify the body, when he knew that was definitely not Crabb. Binding published this information in an article in “The Mail” on March 26, 2006.  Fascinated by the Crabb’s mystery, the Israeli journalist Yigal Serna, interviewed Joseph Zverkin, a former head of Soviet Naval Intelligence who emigrated to Haifa, Israel, in 1990. Zverkin said that in 1956, when the event happened, he was an illegal in England, under the code name of a German citizen. He stated that Crabb was discovered when he was swimming on the water next to the ship by a watchman who was at a height of 20 metres. An order was given to inspect the water and two people on the deck were equipped with small calibre sniper guns. One of them was an able seaman and the other a lieutenant, who was in charge of an artillery unit on the boat, and an exceptional sharp shooter.
Crabb dived next to the boat and came up and swam, perhaps because of air poisoning. The Soviet lieutenant shot him dead in the head, then soon after Crabb sank. However today it is still believed that the Soviets were tipped off by their network of spies in UK and were waiting for Crabb. A British Admiralty clerk, William John Christopher Vassall, was blackmailed by KGB over a gay Admiralty sex ring providing the Soviets lots of photocopies of naval documents. He hid the photo equipment in a specially altered wardrobe, among his women’s underwear, and allegedly informed the Soviets that wartime hero Lionel Crabb RNVR., GM, OBE., would be involved in a secret black operation to examine the Ordzhonikidze hull. When the security services (section DI) compiled an inventory of Vassall’s home in Dolphin Square, in September 1962, they found a Praktina 35mm SLR film camera model 1952 made by KW in Dresden, East Germany, a Minox subminiature spy camera, and 35mm cassettes recording 176 classified Admiralty and NATO documents. These were hidden in the secret drawer of an ostensibly antique bureau bookcase. Vassall trial and conviction to 18 years jail time, caused the further erosion of public trust in the Admiralty, which controls Britain’s own secret service. Evidence at the trial also named a senior official at the Admiralty, Hon Thomas Galbraith, one of the kinds of Vassall’s benefactors.
Vassall acted rather like Hon Thomas Galbraith’s batman, packing a suitcase for his superior when some emergency called him away. Because the minister Galbraith represented an important matter of the Navy department, the Macmillan Government had to set up the Radcliffe tribunal to investigate Britain’s security measures. A spy limpet charge ignited again on June 5, 1963, when British Secretary of War John Profumo, resigned his post following revelations that he had lied to the House of Commons about his sexual affair with Christine Keeler, a very young alleged prostitute. At the time of the affair, Keeler was also involved with Yevgeny “Eugene” Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché suspected for espionage in UK. As the Crabb story goes on, in November, 2007, Eduard Koltsov, then a 74 years old former Soviet frogman, gave an interview for a documentary claiming that he killed Crabb. Koltsov, who was 23 at the time, told the film team that he was ordered to investigate suspect activity around the ship Ordzhonikidze, which had the future Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev on board, as it was anchored in Stokes Bay near Portsmouth harbour. Koltsov said “I saw a silhouette of a diver in a light frogman suit who was fiddling with something at the starboard, next to the ship’s ammunition stores.” A fight ensued and Koltsov said that he killed the British Navy frogman.
According to Gordon Corera, the author of The Art of Betrayal (2011): “Fearing that Crabb was planting a mine to blow up the ship, the Soviet frogman Koltsov says that he swam up from below to slash Crabb’s air tubes and then his throat with a knife. The body was so small he at first thought it belonged to a boy. But he then found himself staring into the dying eyes of a middle-aged man. According to his unconfirmed account, he pushed the body away into the undercurrents, leaving a trail of blood.” Koltsov showed on TV the dagger he allegedly used, as well as an Order of the Red Star medal that he claimed to have been awarded for the deed. On the other hand in Soviet espionage circles, it was rumoured for years that the murderous KGB chief, General Pavel Sudoplatov, ordered effectively Crabb’s death and his body’s mutilation, to prevent his identification. Sudoplatov who died on September 24, 1996, was responsible for many Soviet killings abroad and delighted in torture.               Don Hale in his book, The Final Dive, says that the commander Crabb would never have been planning to blow up the ship. “Placing a mine would have started WW III, it would have been an act of war. It could have been surveillance equipment.”                                                                                            Peter Wright in his book, Spycatcher, claimed the existence of a “Fifth Man” in the Cambridge ring as John Cairncross. He goes on saying that he suspected the mole to be very high up in MI6. Wright says later in his book that the defecting KGB agent Anatoli Golitsin spoke that the KGB had advance warning of Crabbe’s mission.










Until today many journalists have written almost a dozen books worldwide referencing the heroism of Commander Lionel Kenneth Phillip Crabb and maintaining the pressure on the British authorities to reveal what really happened. Crabb, although a Roman Catholic, born in Streatham, south-west London, was a devoted British patriot who was postponing his wedding, because “the queen needed him” for increasingly dangerous missions. His father was listed as “missing in action” in WW I, and so was his mother’s brother. So that for his mother to be kept in ignorance of what really happened to her son who undertook the underwater missions no one else would take, meant she never came to terms with her husband, brother and son, all listed as missing in action.                                                                                      

Reg Vallintine  of the Historical Diving Society was quoted as saying:”Diving historians find it very hard to believe that this man, who prided himself on being a patriot, would have seriously considered defecting. Crabb was very fond of being a hero and it is hard to imagine him jeopardising that status.” Commander Lionel Crabb has often been cited as one of the role models for James Bond. Ian Fleming knew MI6 officer Nicholas Elliott and the Crabb affair, but there is no evidence that Crabb was James Bond.

Bond, for a start, is always successful, whereas Lionel Crabb, obviously was not always like so. Fleming did use the incident as inspiration for Thunderball, in which Bond sets out to investigate the hull of the Disco Volante, but unlike Crabb, Bond returns safe. After all Soviet intelligence defections, it would be very reasonably to consider the fact that in Crabb’s case, the Soviets had indeed information on the MI6 planned mission under the cruiser Ordzhonikidze, berthed at Portsmouth Dockyard in 1956. However, Commander Lionel Crabb story including either his death or survival, needs to be charted on the blood stained pages of the masterpiece shaped up by the network of magnificents who learned the art of espionage at Cambridge.






















Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *