New Soviet Navy Collection Revives a Cold War Mystery

Tuesday, August 4, 2015
From left: First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev and First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Ukrainian SSR Petro Shelest, and behind them Nikolai Podgorny, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the USSR (wearing a beret), togeth
From left: First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev and First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Ukrainian SSR Petro Shelest, and behind them Nikolai Podgorny, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the USSR (wearing a beret), togeth
From left: First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev and First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Ukrainian SSR Petro Shelest, and behind them Nikolai Podgorny, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the USSR (wearing a beret), together with the leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries watching naval exercises in the Black Sea, August 1971 (Voenno-Morskoĭ Flot Photographs, Box 1, Hoover Institution Archives)
The top commanders of the Soviet Navy celebrating the one-hundred year anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin, Moscow, April 1970 (Voenno-Morskoĭ Flot Photographs, Box 1, Hoover Institution Archives)
The top commanders of the Soviet Navy celebrating the one-hundred year anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin, Moscow, April 1970 (Voenno-Morskoĭ Flot Photographs, Box 1, Hoover Institution Archives)
Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, and Nikolai Bulganin, Soviet premier, on board the cruiser Ordzhonikidze, April 1956 (Voenno-Morskoĭ Flot Photographs, Box 1, Hoover Institution Archives)
Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, and Nikolai Bulganin, Soviet premier, on board the cruiser Ordzhonikidze, April 1956 (Voenno-Morskoĭ Flot Photographs, Box 1, Hoover Institution Archives)

The Hoover Institution Archives has acquired from a private source in Warsaw a collection of several hundred photographs of the Soviet Navy during the Cold War. The photographs, mostly black and white, cover all the Soviet fleets: Northern, Pacific, Baltic, Black Sea, and the Caspian Flotilla, with the earliest photo from 1955 and the final series from 1988. The collection includes some photos of ships and sailors, but many more are of high-ranking naval officers during various official functions in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Sevastopol, as well as visits to such countries as Cuba, Indonesia, India, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Most frequently the photographs include the two top officers of the Soviet Navy of the Cold War era: Fleet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, commander in chief of the Soviet Navy for nearly thirty years, and the chief of the Political Directorate, Admiral Vladimir Grishanov. A few photographs include top Communist Party and government leaders: Nikita Khrushchev, Nikolai Bulganin, Leonid Brezhnev, and Nikolai Podgorny, as well as the leaders of Soviet satellite countries of the Warsaw Pact.        

One of the earliest photos in the collection, from April 1956, was taken on board the cruiser Ordzhonikidze, which, escorted by two Baltic Fleet destroyers, took the first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, and Soviet premier Nikolai Bulganin on an official visit to Great Britain. The visit, covered with much curiosity by the British media, did nothing to relax mutual mistrust and Cold War antagonisms, as witnessed by the explosive conflicts later that year, the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian Revolution, but they are another story. The Soviet leaders’ decision to come to Britain on one of the most advanced ships in the Soviet naval arsenal was seen in Britain as an effort to impress the hosts with the military might of the USSR. According to Oleg Troianovskii, a Soviet diplomat and Khrushchev’s interpreter during the visit, Khrushchev and Bulganin were sensitive to the fact that the USSR had no big airliner jets or even four-engine civilian planes, thus would have to use an outdated two-engine Iliushin again, as they did going to the Big Four summit in Geneva in July 1955. A trip on a modern cruiser seemed more appropriate for the leaders of a great power.

The April 1956 visit of the Ordzhonikidze and its berthing at the British naval base in Portsmouth were the backdrop to one of the never resolved, and largely forgotten, spy mysteries of the Cold War, known as the “Crabb Affair.” Commander Lionel Crabb, known as Buster Crabb (after the American film star) to his friends and colleagues, was a highly decorated British Royal Navy frogman during World War II and a civilian diver afterward. In 1956, he was recruited by MI6, and possibly the CIA, to dive clandestinely under the Ordzhonikidze to investigate its uniquely designed propeller that contributed to its extraordinary maneuverability. Crabb never returned from his April 17 dive. Some time after the Soviet delegation left Portsmouth, the Soviets protested that a diver was seen near the cruiser, but the British authorities denied any knowledge of what may or may not have happened. A badly decomposed body was recovered some fourteen months later by fishermen; it was still covered in a distinguishing double-rubber diving suit but lacked the head and both hands. After a hasty inquest, with either his ex-wife or his girlfriend unable to identify the body, the coroner declared it to be that of Buster Crabb. Theories abound as to what happened. Was he killed or captured by the Soviets and taken to Moscow? Did he defect to the Soviet side, or was he killed by MI5 to prevent him from doing so? In popular culture, the story of Buster Crabb has been the inspiration of novels and films, most famous of which was Ian Fleming’s James Bond adventure Thunderball, published in 1961 and later made into a film with Sean Connery. The papers relating to the affair should have been declassified after thirty years, in 1987, but for reasons unknown, the British authorities decided that the documents relating to the final dive of Buster Crabb will remain secret until 2057. Perhaps some of our youngest readers will find out the truth. 

It is a curious coincidence that, some thirteen years before his disappearance, Buster Crabb was the lead diver investigating the suspicious accident that claimed the life of prime minister and commander of the Free Polish forces, General Władysław Sikorski, whose B-24 Liberator crashed into the Mediterranean immediately after taking off from Gibraltar on July 4, 1943. Another curious coincidence is that the MI6 agent responsible for offensive counterintelligence in Spain and Gibraltar was none other than Kim Philby, who, until his defection to the Soviet Union in 1963, was the highest-ranking Soviet mole in the British government service. The question of General Sikorski’s death, much as that of the disappearance of Commander Crabb, will not be put to rest until official secrecy shielding all of the existing documentation is lifted. In the case of the British side, it is hopefully only a matter of time; in the case of the Soviet-Russian side, such expectations do not exist.

For additional information, contact Maciej Siekierski at siekierski [at] stanford.edu.