Sydney Knowles, who has died aged 90, was a naval frogman and the diving partner of Commander Lionel “Buster” Crabb, a spy whose disappearance in 1956, during a covert mission to examine a Russian warship carrying Nikita Khrushchev, remains shrouded in mystery.
In October 1955 Knowles, who had left the Navy and was working as a self-employed newsprint haulier between Blackburn and London, was contacted by Crabb, also retired but by then working for MI6, and asked if he would like to do “a small job for a large fee”. Knowles had been Crabb’s “dive buddy” for more than 10 years and readily agreed to use his lorry to pick up his old boss and drive to Portsmouth, where they parked near the southern entrance to the dockyard.
In the back of the lorry they were helped to change into Italian scuba gear, which they had kept since the war, by a CIA agent whom Knowles knew as Matthew “Goddamn” Smith. Knowles and Crabb then slipped into the water and drifted down on the Soviet cruiser Sverdlov, which was on a goodwill visit to Britain, and which possessed an agility that baffled British Naval Intelligence.
To disguise their outlines as they approached the warship, Crabb wore a net over his face and Knowles an old fish box over his head. Though they could see the bright lights on the upper deck, they reached Sverdlov undetected. Sinking into the depths, they examined the rudders and propellers and then began an underwater search of the cruiser’s hull. While Knowles clung to the bilge keel, Crabb swam into a large circular trunk which concealed a bow-thruster – thus revealing the secrets of Sverdlov’s maneuverability.
After a long, slow swim back to their rendezvous, they celebrated the success of their mission in the back of the lorry with malt whisky before Knowles drove them back to London. Later he was paid £40 cash for his night’s work.
The following April, Crabb called Knowles to propose another dive, this time on the cruiser Ordzhonikidze, which had brought Khrushchev on a diplomatic visit to Britain. Once again the aim was to search her hull for underwater openings and special propeller technologies that might interest Naval Intelligence.
Knowles turned down the offer, and Crabb disappeared on the dive. More than a year later a headless, handless, body was retrieved from the water. It was so badly mauled that even Crabb’s wife was unable positively to identify it, though a coroner ruled that it was he. The doubt over the body’s identity prompted a welter of conspiracy theories. It was suggested that Crabb had had his throat cut while planting a mine on the ship’s hull; others contended that Soviet snipers had seen him and shot him in the water. Some held that the story of his death was a ruse, and that in reality he had defected to become a commander in the Soviet Navy.
Knowles, who felt guilty that his boss had dived without him, was himself the author of a particularly colourful theory. In his memoir, Diver in the Dark (2009), he wrote that Crabb was a member of a dining club known as “The Last Supper”, a coterie of hard-drinking young men, all, to Knowles’s mind “obviously homosexual”. The club was presided over by the traitor Anthony Blunt who, Knowles wrote, was known by all as “Queen Mother”. Other guests whom Knowles claimed to have met included the bandleader Ray Noble, the Labour MP Bernard Floud, the head of MI5 Roger Hollis, and the American Left-wing author Lillian Hellman.
It was, Knowles claimed, in this company that Crabb began to talk of defecting to the Soviets. Knowles suggested that the potential embarrassment of this prompted MI5 itself to kill Crabb, an execution carried out by the new “dive buddy” who replaced Knowles on the dive on Ordzhonikidze. Crabb, Knowles insisted, did not dive alone on his last mission.
Sydney James Knowles was born on September 3 1921, the son of a railwayman who supplemented the family diet with rabbits he snared while working on the tracks. Sydney was educated at St Matthew’s, Preston, until his mother died when he was 14, after which he kept house and did odd jobs.
He joined the Navy as a stoker on the day war broke out and spent two years in destroyers, working in the boiler room and as a loader in the magazine. He saw service off Norway, in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, and off west Africa . His book provides a harrowing account of his years on the lower deck in wartime.
In Gibraltar, Knowles answered a call for volunteers for hazardous duties, and it was then that he met Crabb, whose innocuous-sounding Underwater Working Party he joined. Equipped with only swimming trunks, lead-weighted plimsolls and primitive underwater breathing apparatus, Crabb’s men engaged in a deadly underwater battle with Italian frogmen, based in Spain, who were trying to sabotage ships anchored off the Rock. It was from the bodies of their enemies that Crabb and Knowles recovered the Italian scuba gear that they later used to dive on Sverdlov.
One of their more unusual tasks was to recover the body of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Commander of the Free Poles, after his aircraft crashed off Gibraltar in July 1943.
After the Allied landings in Italy, Knowles accompanied Crabb clearing mines and obstacles ahead of the US Army. Once, driving an American lorry adorned with a White Ensign, he met a German Tiger tank, but quickly reversed into some trees to avoid being hit. In Venice he removed booby-trapped mines from the Bridge of Sighs. Knowles’s and Crabb’s last dive before they left the Navy in 1950 was to search for a treasure-filled Spanish galleon in Tobermory Bay.
Knowles was awarded the BEM for his wartime exploits. In 1958 a film, based on the book Commander Crabb, was made about the frogmen’s war off Gibraltar. The Silent Enemy (1958) starred Laurence Harvey as Crabb and Michael Craig as Knowles.
For many years Knowles was haunted by his experiences and would wake shouting from nightmares in which he gasped for breath and struggled to swim to the surface.
Sydney Knowles, born September 3 1921, died July 31 2012
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