CIA documents shed light on eventful 1956 Soviet visit to Britain

Hugh Gaitskell

Hugh Gaitskell

A batch of declassified CIA reports obtained by the BBC sheds light on the diplomatic angle of a historic and eventful Soviet high-level visit to Britain in 1956. In April of that year, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev, and Nikolai Bulganin, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, arrived in Britain aboard Russian warship Ordzhonikidze, which docked at Portsmouth harbor. Their eight-day tour of Britain marked the first-ever official visit by Soviet leadership to a Western country. The tour ended badly, however, after a botched CIA/MI6 undersea operation, aiming to explore the then state-of-the-art Ordzhonikidze, ended in the disappearance of MI6 diver Lionel “Buster” Crabb. The body of Crabb, one of several MI6 agents involved in the operation, was never recovered. In 2007, Eduard Koltsov, a retired Russian military diver, said he killed a man he thinks was Crabb, as he was “trying to place a mine” on the Soviet ship. Unfortunately, the declassified CIA reports do not shed further light on this mysterious incident. But they do offer clues on the diplomatic side of the high-level Soviet visit. At that time, Washington was apparently “deeply concerned” that the Soviets would utilize their overseas trip to deepen their political relationship with Britain’s Labour Party, then headed by Hugh Gaitskell. But, according to the CIA reports, Khrushchev was coolly received by most members of the Labour Party delegation, resulting in what the CIA described as a “fiasco” dinner party, after which “Khrushchev was heard to say that he found it much easier to talk to the Conservatives than to the British Labour Party”. The Agency was greatly relieved when Gaitskell rejected an official Soviet invitation to visit the USSR, saying it was “impossible for him to accept”. The CIA reports conclude that “of all the developments, Khrushchev’s clash with the Labor Party [during his visit to the UK] may have the most lasting effect in Britain”.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

2 Responses to CIA documents shed light on eventful 1956 Soviet visit to Britain

  1. Edward Wilson says:

    Dear Joseph,
    Thank you for writing this excellent article. I recommend you have a look at my ‘faction’ spy novel, The Envoy, which deals with these issues in some depth. I think there is quite a lot of evidence around to suggest that the right wing of the Labour Party – who later evolved into the Gaitskellites and the Blairites – had been covertly supported by the CIA under the cover of the CCF (Congress for Cultural Freedom). The ‘thriller’ aspect of my book looks intently at the Crabb fiasco – and I suggested limpet mines long before Koltsov’s revelations as a dated first draft MS will prove. I doubt, however, that Crabb met his death in the manner suggested. I interviewed a policeman who was on duty at the time and the canteen gossip was that the Russians had put the ship’s engines in gear while Crabbe was measuring the propellers. I hope the end was quick.
    Best wishes,
    Edward Wilson

  2. intelNews says:

    Thanks for this interesting information. I am glad to see that someone is paying attention to the Crabb affair, which, incidentally, Nikita Khrushchev also mentions in his memoirs (which he produced after his removal from power). I will look into your novel. In the meantime, take a look at the intelNews Book News and Reviews section. Thanks again. [JF]

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