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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 12. Naval Frogmen, German and Soviet Spies

It was during 1952 as I recall, I was just 12 years old, but I went along to the Town Hall with some school chums who were not so serious about the event. It was the premier showing of an underwater film of the seine net in operation. On the platform were Richard Murray, a young White Fish Authority officer, and some representatives from the scientific community at the Marine Laboratory, Aberdeen, along with a leading fish merchant. The film had been shot in the shallow waters of Burghead Bay by a renowned Naval frogman, Commander ‘Buster’ Lionel Crabb RNVR GM OBE, and the platform committee made much of the importance of getting such an outstanding Naval officer to undertake the filming. Buster Crabb was to disappear some 3 years later in a cold war incident that has been the subject of much speculation. His life ended mysteriously when he went swimming around a Russian Naval vessel at Portsmouth in 1956.

The Russian naval ship was the Ordkhonikidze. The previous year Crabb had inspected the heavy cruiser Sverdlosk, that was carrying Soviet leaders Bulganin and Kruschev for a meeting with the British Labour Government (at which Kruschev behaved in typical fashion). Little information or explanation of the Ordkhonikidze incident was released at the time by the British and Soviet governments, though there was much speculation, and Prime Minister Eden later forced MI6 Director John Sinclair to resign over the matter. Buster Crabb had undertaken a number of dangerous assignments for the British Navy during the Second World War, for which he was highly decorated. His fishing net assignment in Scotland must have been mild compared with his other duties. He was able to film the gear by attaching himself to the headline of the net by a short line, which left his hands free, and also kept him abreast of the mouth of the seine-trawl as it was pulled through the water.

Anyhow, the film he shot in the Moray Firth was shown in the local town hall to a fascinated audience of skippers, fishermen and would-be fishermen. It was one of the first films to record fish actually being caught in a trawl-type net, and it confirmed the basic principles of that technique. Fish were seen to be clearly guided by the manila rope warps towards the wings of the net, and from there, still swimming forward to escape the advancing gear, to be overtaken by the groundrope and find themselves inside the bag. The mesh sizes also appeared to work as designed, the smaller fish escaping through them to freedom, and the larger fish being retained.

The technology however was still at a low stage of development. The nets were small and made of cotton. Within ten years they were to be replaced with synthetic high-opening trawls, and the rope warps were also to be made thicker and of synthetic material. But the principle of the Scottish seine (or Danish seine) remained the same. Fish were herded by one or 2 miles of warp being dragged slowly over the sea bed, and as the ring narrowed, were scooped up by the long-winged net. Bottom seines (as opposed to purse seines) are long-winged, lightly rigged drag nets. Since the 1960’s they have mostly been high-opening trawl nets, but still generally lighter than otter trawl nets. Otter trawls require a pair of ‘trawl doors’ to keep the wing ends apart.

To this day I recall the audience responses, ranging from the impressed to the indifferent. My uncle Willie asked the panel if they thought the gear would work the same in 50 fathoms as it was shown to work in 5, - the 30 feet of shallow water in the bay off Burghead. The panel agreed the question was pertinent and generally reckoned the answer was ‘yes’. A rather well-oiled fisherman argued that fish were not caught in large enough quantity in the film for him to be convinced the net was really working at its best. More general questions related to speculation on the future of the country’s fishing industry. One suggestion from the floor was for a former aircraft carrier to be converted to be a floating fish landing station. The fleet might then land their fish on to the carrier at sea, and have them flown from there to the markets ashore. Without demeaning the questioner, the panel agreed the idea was far-fetched and impractical.

Other spies

Our fishing port and its environs had a few minor experiences with spies in both wartime and peacetime. Two German spies came ashore at the mouth of the river Spey during the war, (probably by inflatable dinghy from a submarine), and made their way up the east river bank to the nearest station of the coastal railway line that was still active then. At Fochabers they attempted to purchase tickets to Forres, some 12 miles to the west and close to the RAF stations of Kinloss and Lossiemouth, only their accents and pronunciation raised the suspicions of the station ticket officer. His concerns were further deepened when on asking for the money, “one and six”, meaning one shilling and sixpence, the gentlemen handed over one pound six shillings. When the train arrived at Forres, police or military personnel were waiting to receive the strange visitors, and to escort them to a local army camp for questioning.

During the late 1950’s, as part of NATO exercises, our local air station (then RNAS Fulmar), was host to a squadron of West German Starfighter jets as I recall. The young German pilots were well received in town and some were popular with local girls. A former classmate of mine, June Gilbert, daughter of one of our fish buyers, became friendly with one of the pilots. June, an attractive girl, had been a Gala beauty queen a few years earlier. Apparently the couple had been planning to get married. It all came to a sudden end in a wave of tabloid publicity, when the young pilot was arrested on suspicion of spying for East Germany and the Soviet Bloc. There was no shadow of suspicion on June, however, who was and is a fine woman, and was completely unaware of her boyfriend’s activities. She went on later to marry an English Naval officer. I believe the German pilot was imprisoned for some years.

The Soviet spy fleet

Russia’s use of its huge fleet of ocean going factory vessels to collect information on European, British and American naval activities and coastal defenses was a common topic during the cold war era. Some speculated that the whole Soviet fishing fleet was a cover for a vast marine surveillance network. There may have been an element of truth in that, but what few of the public know is how much the British military intelligence agencies used our own distant water trawlers for similar purposes. Several trawler skippers and mates from Hull and Grimsby told me how they would be approached regularly by these people, and asked to gather as much information as possible when voyaging close to the Russian coast. They normally used the ‘sparky’ or radio-telephone operator to record and photograph on their behalf. He would be given cameras and tape recorders for that purpose, and would be expected to hand over to the intelligence officer on his return, rolls of film with pictures of the Russian coast or vessels, and tape recordings of Soviet shipping radio messages.

My good friend, Ben West from Grimsby, told me that as mate he stopped the practice on trawlers he sailed on, after their experience of being arrested for fishing inside the Russian fishing limits. They were escorted to Murmansk where they were held for a few days, then released following assurances they would not transgress again. During their period in Murmansk, the trawlermen would try to play tricks on the armed Russian soldier left on board to supervise them in port. At one point they stole his rifle when he was otherwise distracted. The poor young soldier was near to tears pleading for the return of the gun, as he could have faced severe punishment for his negligence. But the fishermen had no wish to prolong his agony and the rifle was returned. However, Ben admitted that had the Russians found the cameras and tape recorder used by the radio officer, the whole crew could have faced a prolonged stay in a Soviet prison. (I believe the items were dropped over the side into the sea before the Russians boarded the captured vessel). So after that incident Ben would not allow them to be carried on any of his trawlers.

I was to visit Murmansk myself in 1965, - a few years after the incident described above. It is a huge sheltered port inside the Arctic circle where for 3 months in the year the sun does not rise and for three months in summer it does not set. I was there with an international group of persons from Asia, Africa, the Far East, and America, who were involved in fisheries management and education in their countries. The Murmansk people and authorities entertained us well, even permitting a late night sing-song competition with a Russian group in a local restaurant. We visited Soviet trawlers, fish plants, technical colleges, and even an Arctic fox farm where the animals were fed on fish offal. Archangel is the other ice free port on the Arctic coast of Russia where the Gulf Stream ends, but keeps the sea lane clear of ice. Many of our sailors visited these places during the war when they escorted convoys with supplies for our then allies in Russia.

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