Mysterious death of the 'real James Bond' was hushed up

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The fate of a naval hero said to have been the inspiration for James Bond was hushed up by the government, secret documents released yesterday reveal.

Ministers were keen to play down claims that Commander Lionel "Buster" Crabb had been spying on Russian ships when he went missing during a dive off Portsmouth in 1956. The vessels were in British waters for a visit by the Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev and Marshal Nikolai Bulganin.

Sir Anthony Eden, the prime minister, told the House of Commons that it would "not be in the public interest" to disclose the circumstances of Commander Crabb's death. He added that, "what was done was done without the authority or knowledge of Her Majesty's ministers".

The cover-up prompted wild speculation for years, including claims that Commander Crabb was alive and well and living in Russia as an officer in the Red Navy, and others that he was killed by the Soviets.

Secret documents relating to the controversy were released to the public today at the National Archives in Kew, south-west London.

They reveal the determination of officials to cover up what really happened, even rejecting a request for maintenance from his ex-wife Margaret Crabb.

Five months after Commander Crabb's death, WH Lewin, head of Naval Law, wrote in a memo: "If this came out... it would not seem to square very well with our statement that Crabb had been out of the Navy for over a year at the time of his death."

The official Admiralty line following the incident on 19 April was that Crabb had been, "specially employed in connection with trials of certain underwater apparatus" and was missing presumed drowned. But a memo from Rear-Admiral J G T Inglis, director of naval intelligence, on 21 June, explained that it was "considered essential" to avoid implicating top officers in Portsmouth. In a "bona fide" operation there would have been "immediate and extensive rescue operations", he explained, while an unnamed diving officer who was with the commander would have taken action.

Instead, as the rear- admiral points out: "The moment it became clear a mishap had occurred (name blanked out) was ordered to return to his ship and take no further part in the affair."

The secret account of an anonymous lieutenant commander, who assisted Commander Crabb on the day of his disappearance, was also revealed for the first time. He said he had been asked, as an expert diver, to assist him, "entirely unofficially and in a strictly private capacity".

The officer said: "His actions until disappearance under the surface were normal, and the conditions for diving were good. He was not seen by me again."

Navy officials were keen for this officer not to appear in public at a subsequent inquest after the headless body of a diver was found in Chichester in June 1957. The coroner ruled that it was Commander Crabb's body that had been found.

Howard Davies, of the National Archives, said the extent of the cover-up suggested more details about the case would emerge.