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Book Review – The Final Dive: The Life and Death of ‘Buster’ Crabbe (2007)

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It was the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Cruiser Ordzhonikidz, supported by two destroyers, had brought Soviet leaders Khruschev and Bulganin to Britain for sensitive meetings with the British Government. The ships were moored in Portsmouth harbour and the Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, had expressly forbidden any clandestine inspection of them. However, on the morning of 19th April 1956 Commander Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabbe, an experienced naval diver, slipped into the cold waters of Portsmouth harbour. His top secret mission was to photograph the hull, propellers and rudder of the Ordzhonikidze. He was never seen alive again.

A badly decomposed body, with head and hands missing, was discovered by fishermen in Chichester harbour months later. It was claimed to be the missing body of Buster Crabbe – but many had doubts. The incident marked the start of a controversy that claimed the posts of several high ranking naval, government and intelligence service personnel. The author of The Final Dive, Don Hale, claims it is one that still rages and which may not be resolved even when secret government files are released in 2057.

Don Hale, an acknowledged campaigning journalist and former Journalist of the Year brings all his experience and skill to unravelling this longstanding scandal. He has drawn upon official reports and private letters, statements from government representatives, fellow officers and friends to piece together Buster’s life and events leading to his disappearance and subsequent investigation. He speaks of “inquiries blocked by intrigue, constant cover-ups and government bureaucracy coupled with threats relating to the Official Secrets Act” (p. xi). If you like reading about subterfuge on a grand scale you will enjoy The Final Dive.

Don Hale’s meticulous account of the life of Buster Crabbe is supported by dozens of black and white photos and extracts from numerous official documents. It reveals how an amazing series of civilian jobs, wartime activities and friendships with high ranking government officials, British intelligence officers, American CIA operatives. . . and now known spies, prepared him for his final dive and perhaps his fate. One of Crabbe’s acquaintances was the author Ian Fleming – of James Bond fame. Indeed, it is suggested that Fleming based the character of 007 on Buster Crabbe. After reading of his exploits, both before WWII, his bomb disposal work during the war, and afterwards it is easy to see why. Certainly, those who worked with Buster Crabbe “all agree he was fearless.” (p.59). After reading of his exploits one wonders if he was too fearless.

In the later stage of Buster’s life, prior to his disappearance, Don Hall recounts “a constant merry-go-round of overseas assignments” (p. 118) for Crabbe and how he “began to receive increasingly hazardous commissions” (p. 136). It culminated in the morning dive in Portsmouth harbour. Hale’s forsensic-like account of the events surrounding the final dive and aftermath reveals absolute panic and bungling behind the scenes as official answers conflict with known facts. He describes how “The whole incident still seems bathed in secrecy, with the true facts deliberately buried in bureaucracy, and supported at the highest level by an incredible cover-up operation”.(p. 205).

A final comment by Don Hale adds to the intrigue. He states “The only part of the Crabbe puzzle about which I am not certain is not who sent him – we know the answer to that – but why on earth he was he sent, possibly at considerable risk?” (p. 248). After reading The Final Dive: The Life and Death of ‘Buster’ Crabbe you will no doubt have your own ideas.


The Final Dive: The Life and Death of ‘Buster’ Crabbe (2007)

  • By Don Hale
  • Stroud: Sutton Publishing
  • ISBN 978 0 7509 4574 5
  • 260 pp

Don Hale was a professional footballer before becoming editor of several regional newspapers. He has received numerous national and international awards for investigative journalism including Journalist of the Year. In 2002 he was awarded an OBE for his campaigning journalism in the Stephen Downing miscarriage of justice case. He has championed several others who have been wrongly convicted.

His other books include Town without Pity (2002), Murder in the Graveyard (2019) and Mallard: How the ‘Blue Steak’ Broke the World Speed Record (2019).


Find out more about Professor Fred Lockwood, who is also a published author, at www.fredlockwood.co.uk.

Dr Fred Lockwood is Emeritus Professor of Learning and Teaching, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. He is also a PADI Master Scuba Diver and dived in the waters of Central America and Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia, Australasia and the Pacific Islands. Follow Fred at www.fredlockwood.co.uk.

Miscellaneous Blogs

Book Review –Adrift: Seventy-six days lost at sea (1986)

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A lone sailor is battling an Atlantic storm in a twenty-one foot long sailboat. It is dark, approaching midnight, when a massive crash rips away part of the hull. Within seconds the boat is sinking and Steven Callahan is drowning. Miraculously he frees a life raft and frantically salvages what he can before the sailboat disappears beneath the waves. However, an initial ordeal becomes never ending torment inside the sanctuary of his life raft. “There are no good conditions in a life raft, and no comfortable positions in which to rest. There are only the bad and the worse.” (p. 66)

Steven Callahan is four-hundred and fifty miles north of the Cape Verde Islands and about as far from the west coast of Africa. He’s alone and lost at sea for the next seventy-six days as he drifts 1800 miles westward towards the Caribbean. Each day is a struggle to stay alive with “constant dreams of food and drink, the aching loneliness, the fear” (p. 74). He stays alive due to his seamanship, ingenuity and dogged determination.

The true story of Steven Callahan’s survival is remarkable; few have survived as long under such conditions. His graphic account describes his gradual physical and mental decline as dehydration and starvation take their toll and isolation impacts on his mental state. He describes how his life “… has become a composition of multilayered realities – day dreams, night dreams, and the seemingly endless physical struggle.” (p.95)

An account of seventy-six days, alone, inside a life raft and at the mercy of the elements is difficult to sustain without a degree of repetition. However, it is this drawn out, mind-numbing repetition – interspaced with brief, life threatening action and terror – that serves to convey the day to day struggle to survive. The story of Steven Callahan’s survival is now 35 years old but inspirational and still worth reading. If you are ever faced with a similar challenge his experience and example may help you.


Adrift: Seventy-six days lost at sea (1986)

  • By Steven Callahan
  • London: Guild Publishing
  • 234pp

Find out more about Professor Fred Lockwood, who is also a published author, at www.fredlockwood.co.uk.

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Miscellaneous Blogs

The BiG Scuba Podcast… with Grace Marquez.. Fine Art for water lovers

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The BiG Scuba duo, Gemma and Ian chat to Grace Marquez,  a visual artist and creative consultant living Canada. She works primarily in acrylic paint on canvas or wood boards and her subjects include the diverse and rich marine life and environments found underwater.

Her work is 100% informed and inspired by her love and her passion as an avid cave, technical diver and active scuba instructor. She enjoys sharing the wonder of the underwater world with new divers. While she has dived all over the world diving reefs, mines, and caves, she is happiest diving the many shipwrecks in the cold water of the Great Lakes.

Have a listen here:

Find out more at:


Find more podcast episodes and information at the new www.thebigscuba.com  website and on most social platforms @thebigscuba 

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Egypt | Simply the Best Itinerary | 14 – 21 October 2021 | Emperor Echo

Jump on board the latest addition to the Emperor fleet and enjoy diving the famous sites of the Red Sea with this fantastic special offer. Great value for money and perfect for small groups of buddies with a ‘Book 5 and 1 dives for FREE’ offer all year round.

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Subject to availability.
Alternative departure airports available at supplement.

Email info@diversetravel.co.uk to find out more!

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