[May 19, 2017] British Royal Navy officer Lionel Crabb was a frogman (underwater diver) who served with distinction during World War II and for a time afterwards. He was described as tiny and a poor swimmer with a long nose, bright eyes, and with his miniature frame he might have been an aquatic garden gnome.1 Lionel Crabb is a hero to Britain and to the free world.
Crabb earned his nickname “Buster” from the handsome American movie star Buster Crabb who played Flash Gordon in the 1930s film series and was a gold medal swimmer in the 1932 Olympic Games. Lionel Crabb was nothing like his namesake.
After World War II broke out in Europe, Crabb joined the Royal Navy and trained as a diver. Later in 1940 he volunteered for bomb disposal duties. But it was in 1942 that Crabb came into his element. He was sent to Gibraltar to take part in the underwater battle around the Rock where Italian frogmen were sinking Allied shipping.
Lieutenant Crabb did something the best leaders do in unusual situations; he put together a team to successfully accomplish a difficult and dangerous mission. Crabb and his men removed limpet mines from the hulls of Allied ships while being pursued by Italian frogmen who had greater recourses and technology, as well as one of the smartest men in the business.
For the British frogmen the challenge was to save lives and material for the war. Crabb displayed those very traits that are necessary for great leadership. He stood out as a remarkable figure; always proper in the way only the English can do. Described by his men as an engaging man of the highest integrity as well as being the best frogman in the country; he was loved by his fellow frogmen.
Focused and able to take calculated risks, intelligent, cunning, articulate, and reliable, Crabb had the very virtues leaders need most. He was everything the Allies needed during a time of war. The post-war period was ultimately his undoing. The transition to peacetime operations in the Royal Navy didn’t suit him well and it was his personal problems that eventually ended his life.
Crabb had his internal demons. Married for the first time in 1952, the couple separated the next year. He suffered from deep depressions and had a weakness for “gambling, alcohol, and barmaids.” When taking a woman out to dinner he liked to dress up in his frogman outfit; unsurprisingly, this seldom had the desired effect.2
As part of a British intelligence mission, Commander Crabb disappeared on a dive in April 1956 to explore and photograph the keel, propellers, and rudder of a Soviet battle cruiser. Alas, he had been drinking (reported to be at least five double whiskeys) that day and was physically not up to the task. What actually happened remains a mystery to this day.
Commander Lionel “Buster” Crabb is a hero for his bravery and outstanding leadership during some of the darkest times in British history.3 For that, he will be remembered fondly by his countrymen and by those who look to study leadership, even flawed leadership.
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- Time Magazine, May 14, 1956.
- He earned the Order of the British Empire (OBE), the George Medal (GM), and various other distinctions during his service.