Interview with Reginald John Herring


Interview with Reginald John Herring
1014-Herring, Reginald CJ


Reg Herring was living in London at the start of the war with his father and elder brother. His father built a shelter that collapsed after a heavy rainfall. Reg was evacuated to Sizewell and then to near Birmingham. After the war Reg returned to London and decided to join the Navy where he worked as bomb and mine disposal. He had many interesting years in the Navy including a strange mission to collect the body of a spy.





00:36:25 audio recording


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RH: Right.
Interviewer: Hello there. Just for the record could you just please give your full name and date of birth.
RH: Yeah. My name is Reginald John Herring and I was born on the 25th of the 4th 1930.
Interviewer: Ok. Thanks. My name is Dave Harrigan and I’ll be just carrying out the interview with Reg. Reg, then, well let’s just start really before the war obviously.
RH: Yeah.
Interviewer: Just to talk a bit about your family background where you came from. Family history if you like and then we’ll just proceed through.
RH: Yes. Well, briefly I was born in Hackney. I had three brothers, three sisters and we moved from Hackney, they were going to pull the house down. I should say also at this point that my mother had died when I was six years old. So at that point we moved from Hackney to a place called Becontree. At that point my elder sister was married and away from the home. My second sister was away living in Norfolk with her friend. Her boyfriend. My third sister was engaged to be married and my eldest brother was already married. My second eldest brother had moved away to Wolverhampton to get married and I was left with my father and my elder brother Joe who was four years older than I. At this point it was during the beginning of the Phoney War. One thing that is vivid which I made a note of there is the barrage balloon incident at Whipps Cross Hospital, near Bridge Road where they hoisted a barrage balloon. We were all excited about it and so forth. Then the Phoney War went on. In the meantime, apparently I understand now that we were not at that time entitled to an Anderson shelter. We didn’t qualify for one so dad decided to build one and we were banned from going to the end of the garden until he’d finished it. This project involved the half rolls of mangles, wooden mangles and I don’t know if you can remember these wooden mangles or not but they are split into two half-moon sections. So we had, I don’t know how many of these mangle rolls delivered or dad brought them along but we were not allowed to go down there until he’d finished. And the great day come. It was a Sunday. I remember it being a Sunday and off we went down the end of the garden to see this wonderful shelter that he’d built which looked like Fort Knox with all the wood and as I say the dirt and a couple of little shelves inside for two candles apparently. Well, we said, ‘Oh yes, this is fine dad. Great.’ You know, ‘This is marvellous.’ Well, the following week it rained like hell and the whole lot collapsed. So we still [laughs] we still were not entitled to an Anderson shelter but by this time the six months had gone by and the war had actually started so we were evacuated, Joe and I, my brother. And the first evacuation was to Sizewell on the east coast. We weren’t there terribly long, about a month or so when for no reason we were aware of we suddenly got moved from there over to a place called Hockley Heath, twelve miles west of Birmingham. It wasn’t very pleasant. It was a detached home. Sorry, a semi-detached home with a Welsh family lived on one side and the people we were living with was, the husband was Welsh and the wife was English. The husband was a very stern man and we didn’t very much care for him at all. But by this time the time was creeping on. We had the usual things a child would have to do. Chopping wood and my particular job was to keep this water container full of water because we had no gas. We had no electricity. The lighting was an oil lamp that came down from the ceiling and it was, and the battery powered radio [pause] I’m going a bit too fast here. By this time Joe was now fourteen and he disappeared. He was taken back home. Apparently because he was fourteen and dad said he was ready for work so he couldn’t stay there. So I was now left on my own with this family. And the two children next door didn’t like me at all. I was a London boy. They didn’t like me. Anyway, time went on and as I say my duty was to fill this water bin up and also chop the wood. Keep the woodshed full of chopped wood. So this went on. If I wanted to I couldn’t, I was never allowed into the best room. We had a kitchen sort of with a wood burning stove in the corner but the best room I never went, actually went in. I went through it to go up the stairs to go to bed but I was never allowed to sit in it. So if they had their battery powered radio on with accumulators obviously I could listen to it through the wall. So I was quite content to listen to the radio through the wall until it was time for me to have to go to bed. And then we had a bus that took us to school. We had an incident on the bus. Now, again I was a bit of an outcast being a London boy. I wasn’t a local lad. I didn’t mix too well so I used to sit at the back of the bus and I always stayed there. And there was an incident with a malicious, wrong word, a girl was molested down at the front end. The bus driver by the way had a sort of a metal screen around the back. I can’t recall it exactly but he could hear the noise but couldn’t see what was going on and he wouldn’t stop the bus. I don’t know for what reason until we got to the school where there was a big kerfuffle and we was all taken into this room and interviewed. Nothing was said. We were all interviewed and the following day the bus turned up again as usual for school and there was this lady accompanying the students on the bus. So we all go to school again and again we get interviewed. Come back home and I can remember the woman saying to me, ‘You’d better go straight to bed because I don’t know what he is going to do when he comes home.’ Which frightened the life out of me. So now I went up to bed and shed a few tears. And then I heard a knock at the door and the voice I heard was, ‘Well, I think it’s better to leave him alone for tonight.’ So with that I didn’t hear any more and this lady went away. There were no telephones by the way. There was no way of communication other than by physically knocking on the door. Who this lady was I don’t know to this day. The following morning thinking I was going back to school again I started to get dressed and the lady came up and said, ‘I want you to put on your best clothes.’ She said, ‘We’re going to the Bullring at Birmingham,’ she said. ‘Apparently,’ she said, ‘Whatever was said about you was wrong and this is a present.’ So off we go to the Bullring at Birmingham. I’m wondering what I’m going to get as a present and we go into this ironmonger’s shop. Came out with a three quarter size axe. And then it dawned on me what the present was. It was for me for the wood from the shed. So anyway, I was out in the woods, the two lads next door and myself and looking for broken trees and sort of to cut up and they decided they wanted to have a go at me with birch branches. So they started battering me with these birch branches so I lost my temper and chased them back home with the axe. Shortly after that I got called back to London. Dad called me back to London and I then went on to Canterbury Road School and I was there for about two years I think. At that time my sister Maud who lived in Canterbury Road and her husband said to my father, ‘Well, we can give you one room for you and Reg to live in,’ you know, ‘For the time being.’ So dad and I lived in this one room. My sister had never done anything to it. Never cleaned it or anything like that. She had one child at this point and time went on. We had a couple of air raids then one in particular where we’d, we had a Morris shelter or a Morrison shelter which as you know is still famous with children in the second room at the front and the siren had gone and things were getting a bit noisy. So I grabbed the young boy, Terry, the youngest son and got him in to the shelter and my sister was just following us in when this bomb dropped. The next thing I know is that I’ve managed to pull the grill up. I remember getting the grill up. The grill was a framed mesh that you could drop down. I remember pulling it up and then it was all rubble then. Or dirt and rubble, noise, darkness. And then we heard the voices. ‘Are you ok? Are you ok?’ And these hands came in and started pulling the rubble and dust away and brought the grill down and as I made a note in there I said the faces, everybody’s face was white and grey. We all looked the same you know [laughs] It was quite weird. We got out at that particular point and then disaster struck. My sister had come into the room which she didn’t normally do and she’d found bed bugs under the bedframe. Now, the bed frame was the old-fashioned frame of two steel, one forward, one aft. Sorry one frame at one and one into the other and the bed itself was in a silver frame with a mesh on it dropped into it and it was in those joints where these bed bugs were coming. Now, my sister obviously told her husband who was a captain in the Home Guard and I could hear him having strong words with my father and the next thing I knew was we’d moved. We moved to one room in Leslie Road in Clapton. That home is still there. I’ve got it on the internet. So we got this one room. I’m now, what? Fourteen? About fifteen. Fifteen, sixteen years old. Dad had a girlfriend, a lady friend and when we moved there she said, ‘Well, I’ll take Reg’s ration coupons and his clothing coupons and I’ll see that he gets —' you know. Well, that didn’t happen. I never saw them again and I never got any clothes from her or anything else. Dad never stayed there. I say he never stayed there that’s wrong but he very infrequently stayed there so I’m more or less left on my own in this room. And the situation was that we had, there was a bathroom there but they’d boarded the bath over and left a bowl, a washing up bowl and there was a bucket with a lid on it that you could shut, put over the bucket and that was our toilet. And I used to have to take this bucket, it was terribly embarrassing for me at that age to have to take this bucket down the stairs, through their kitchen and empty it into their toilet at the bottom of the stairs and then wash it out and bring it back up again. And then horror of horrors I discovered more bed bugs. So I went out and bought myself a couple of boxes of Swan Vestas and I rolled the mattress back as far as I could get it at one end and I literally sat there burning these bed bugs. One in each corner and I moved the mattress back and burned the other corner. And when I saw my father I said, ‘I can’t stay here any longer. You know, I’ve had enough.’ So I went and joined the Navy. So I must have been seventeen and a half then. So that’s basically the, that part of the history. The rest of it is Naval.
Interviewer: I think it would be interesting just to so what was the actual date that you joined the Navy?
RH: I joined on the 1st of January 1948.
Interviewer: Right. So obviously after training there you just, you were part of the post-war fleet really.
RH: Yes, I mean I don’t know if you want the movements. I mean it was quite a quick.
Interviewer: Yeah. Please. Yeah.
RH: I went to Royal Arthur which I now understand was Butlins at the time or before the war. I was there for six weeks and then I was transferred then to HMS Anson which was a thirty five thousand ton battleship for a further six weeks which I then got myself into serious trouble. I knew nothing about the Navy like most of the new lads. Nothing. So the routine of having to change and get dressed into another part of the uniform, working rig they called it and be up on deck in twenty five minutes was beyond my capabilities. I couldn’t shower and, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t shower, get changed, get up on deck which was five decks below the main deck, right [laughs] to be on parade in time. And of course, having a shower in stone cold and it wasn’t fresh water it was salt water I couldn’t stop myself I had to urinate in the shower and one of the old ABs, able seaman who had seen the last war and the war before that, you know collared me. Put me in the rattle on charge. So I was then charged and my punishment was to be up on deck at 5 o’clock in the morning with two other lads who were also under punishment and we had a hundred weight of potatoes and we had to peel them by 7 o’clock.
Interviewer: By hand.
RH: That was part of the punishment. The other part of the punishment was jumping over six inch anchor cable with a rifle over your head. You know, to hop over the cable and hop right around the [unclear] front end, back over the starboard and port anchor and come back again and then hold the rifle out at arm’s length for thirty seconds. And the, what do you call it? The sight would make a dent in your arm. Actually bruise it, you know. We’d done this for seven days I think it was on the trot. It was all good fun.
Interviewer: So once you’d been indoctrinated then obviously we talked a bit about how the Korean war broke out. Would you like to mention that a little bit?
RH: Yes. That was quite quick for me. Theres a routine in the Navy that you were obliged to look at the notice board every morning. That’s the first priority. The reason for that is to see if you’ve been drafted. You’re being sent somewhere else. So I was in, hang on I’m in advance of myself. Yeah. Prior to that I was on bomb and mine wreck dispersal. Do you want that bit or shall we just move to the —
Interviewer: We’ll move onto the thing. Yeah.
RH: Yeah. Yeah, I was on HMS Tyrie, which was a trawler. There’s a photograph of it there. A converted trawler for wreck dispersal and we blew up wrecks on the east coast. Big [unclear] they were quite large [blows] because we used to use pairs of five hundred weight charges tied together. Take them out and you’d have two depending on the size of the wreck you’d have probably two on one side of the side of the boat, two on the other side of the boat. Not the ship. The sea boat. Right. You would have previously located that wreck with ASDIC, now called Sonar and you’d drop a marker buoy on it. So the following day you’d come back ready to drop your charges down alongside the ship. The idea being that either to blow a trench one side and then blow the ship or the remains of the ship into the trench or take off the superstructure. It had to be at a certain level below high water for the passage of big ships.
Interviewer: Right.
RH: Coming through the Channel. So that was the theory. We’d had a particularly nasty one where we’d lowered the charges and we were ready to blow and I’ve written what happened then. The boat sailed off for about two miles away and the sea boat then had a big reel of cable in it, electrical cable with a chunk of old copper iron plate for the earth and set the detonator charger, you know. And you would go by the buoy marker as to where the charger was obviously. Now, we didn’t realise it. Nobody realised it. Unfortunately, the gunner who was in charge of all this operation had gone sick and was replaced by another gunner who was very very young and unfortunately, no didn’t quite know what was going on. The chief torpedo man told him that it was unwise to set the charge until we’d done our last run and made sure that the buoy hadn’t moved. But he decided we’d carry on. Anyway, we blew the charge and we were too close to it and this three quarter ton reel of, three quarter underweight not a ton went over the side along with the stoker who was in charge of the engine. He got a broken arm, the coxswain got a broken ankle because the rudder came down and whacked him in the leg. So it was panic stations for a while and of course we got the first wave of the blow. So we managed to get the boat in line with it so we’d got bows on to it and took the, took the wave. In the meantime, the ship hurried along at ten noughts, we couldn’t go any faster [laughs] and picked us up. That was the Tyrie. I then went in the depot and went on to bomb and mine disposal and we had to go out to a Grimsby trawler during the night that had picked up a mine in its net. They wouldn’t let it in harbour obviously because of the, and if you could imagine this big net full of fish and stuck inside the fish was a dirty great mine swinging on a davit. So, anyway, we get out there and get aboard and it was an old World War One mine corroded, terribly corroded but in the compartment of the mine itself you’ve got quite a large airspace. You’ve got the main charge but quite a nice airspace and which had got compressed air in it and you’d got the detonator and primer and then the main charge. You’d got a detonator, primer, charge in that order. So the primarily thing is to get the detonator out first. Once you’d got that you were fifty percent safe. So to get to this situation we said to the skipper, ‘Well, you’ll have to lower the mine down on the deck.’ Bearing in mind that with a trawler there was plenty of light so it’s fair, you know. So plenty, so we got the coconut matting and lowered the mine down on the deck. And then we cut them out the trawler net and the skipper was screaming his head off because it was about three hundred pound he said for a new net. So we cut the net and all these fish came pouring out all over the place. You’ve now got a deck full of slippery fish, blood, guts and all the rest of it hanging out and a horrible looking mine sitting there very forlorn, you know [laughs] So anyway fortunately we spotted the detonator so the officer in charge said to me, ‘Alright, Herring.’ I don’t know, they don’t call me Reg. Herring. He said, ‘Put that in your pocket and get up on the bridge.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir. I put it in my pocket and I trundled up to the bridge. The skipper said, ‘What are you doing up here?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been ordered to come up here with the detonator.’ Well as soon as I said that he shot off [unclear] [laughs] So I’m standing there with this detonator in my pocket. I mean it’s dead, it wouldn’t do anything and we got the, got the primer out and declared the mine safe etcetera. So I then got the order to throw that detonator over the side and that was the end of that episode. Another episode was a bit sillier which involved a callout by a man. I don’t know what harbour it was, I don’t know what seaside resort it was but this chappy had previously reported a landmine on the coast. On the, on the foreshore. And the way I understood it was that if a mine was found above high water it belonged to the Army. If it was found below high water it belonged to the Navy. So we got called out and he had previously reported a mine, a landmine and it had been dealt with by the previous squad to me. So I was the new boy in this squad. You know, the do it all lad. So off we go down to wherever it was and I can remember there being a jetty with a load of people on it in the distance. But the chappy said he’d marked it with some stones but unfortunately the tide was coming in so we had to be a bit sharp about it. So we formed up in line abreast and shuffled our way through the surf until we, one of us stumbled across this little pile of stones you see. I say little pile, it was quite a big pile. Right. Ok, we’ve located it. By this time the sea is now coming in urgently so the gunnery officer in charge said, ‘Right,’ he said, ‘Herring, get out there,’ he said, ‘With the phone.’ We had been a portable handset phone and, ‘Get out there,’ he said, ‘And see if you can feel around it and tell us what the measurements are and so forth, roughly.’ I said, ‘Right.’ So I’ve got my hands in this sand and silt, I’ve got the sea coming up and I can’t swim by the way. I’ve got the sea coming up over my shoulders and I’m saying, ‘Well, I think it’s about two foot wide, sir and about two inches, three inches deep.’ Because as far as you put your hands in the sand it came back again at you. So you know you couldn’t really tell. I said, ‘It’s got a handle in the middle.’ So, I heard a sort of a mumble. ‘Right. Ok. Get a line on it. It’s a mark —’ something or other. I could only just get this in the phones. So I tie the rope around the handle. It’s quite true this is. We all got back to the shore, pull the cord tight on this so-called mine and the four of us got on to the end of it and heaved. Nothing happened. So we commandeered four policemen. Now, by this time the crowd on the jetty had got bigger. They was quite some way away but they had got bigger. And the four policemen and ourselves heaved on this line so the order is two, six, heave. You’ve probably heard it yourself. So anyway, ‘Two, six, heave,’ and we were all flat on our backs and out comes a brightly green painted dustbin lid.
Interviewer: Oh no.
RH: So [laughs] it was just after that I was sent to Korea [laughs]
Interviewer: As a punishment [laughs]
RH: I was causing too much trouble I think.
Interviewer: I agree. That’s marvellous. I mean we’re getting near the end of our time but if its ok with you I’d just take a quick resume really of your service in Korea. You know, what actions that you saw.
RH: Yeah.
Interviewer: The ship you served on.
RH: I was shipped out to Hong Kong and I was supposed to pick up the Cossack at Hong Kong.
Interviewer: That’s HMS Cossack.
RH: Sorry, the HMS Cossack. Yes. But unfortunately, I was unwell and was transferred to the Peak Hospital which is or was right on the top of the mountain at Hong Kong. There was a Navy hospital here. In the meantime, Cossack had sailed off to Japan ready to load up for the Korean action presumably. Anyway, I was sent to the Peak and after about five weeks I came back down again and I joined a New Zealand frigate for passage to Hong Kong, to Seoul. That was what I was told. They were going to Seoul because nobody really knew anything at that point in time and I joined the frigate and we sailed out of Hong Kong and I was, I went down to the Mess desk and the Mess deck was in total silence. And that’s totally unusual for a ship. Everybody was dead quiet. And it turned out that when you were in harbour on a, on a warship they normally put an awning over the quarter deck so the officers can have tea parties and so forth while they are in harbour. But as soon as you leave harbour you take it down and this rating had gone along the guard rail itself to take down part of the awning and slipped and gone underneath the [port screw]. So the journey out to Cossack was quite miserable. It was only about, I don’t know twenty four hours or so. The two ships met in some bay. I don’t know what bay. I don’t know where it was but this frigate joined up with the Cossack and they lowered the boat and I jumped in it. Take the boat over to the Cossack, climbed the ladder, saluted the quarter deck and before I could get down below she was underway and off to clear. At 5 o’clock in the morning we were firing all guns and we had anti-shock lamps and every one blew. We had, what was it? Coconut. Not coconut. Cork. We’d had corks all over the deck head. So apart from the broken glass and everything else we were covered in cork. That was our opening attack [laughs]. The next thing that invaded us was cockroaches. So I mean the ship had never fired it’s guns for a long time. It hadn’t fired them since the, I think it was the Narvik raid. It had been fired with dummy shells, you know blank shells but never the actual cordite shells so of course the kick back was tremendous. It went right through the ship and all the cockroaches thought we’ve had enough of this and fell down like, you know [laughs] So you got a dinner full of cockroaches. What did we do then? Yes, we’d done a lot of secret things that no one would ever admit to. We had a job to go and apparently to pick up this man who was supposed to have been an agent for South Korea and we had twelve bods on board and by God they looked ferocious. They were blacked up. They were bearded. They weren’t Naval people at all and they sat on the torpedo deck during the passage and we’d, we’d hoisted up alongside on the port bow. I remember a dhow, a small dhow. I don’t know the details of it but I found out afterwards that the idea was that they were to be taken to a certain point up on the Korean coast, loaded on the dhow, sailed off and capture this bloke. They caught the bloke because I’ve seen photographs. Well, I’ve seen the bloke himself with a bullet through his head on the upper deck of our ship. That’s another little story. They brought him back but they wouldn’t bring him back alive. They would not bring him on board alive. They insisted that they kill him first and they did. They killed him first and they sailed off on their dhow and that was the end of that. So we had this body in a cabinet, a steel cabinet on the deck which normally held brooms and scrubbers and things like that you know. And this body was temporarily bunged into this cabinet. Right. Now, we have the middle watch coming up. The middle watch is from twelve to 4 o’clock in the morning and the gunnery people are always on standby. They’re not at action stations but they were at what they called cruising stations whereby they can immediately be at action stations if required. So therefore they’ve got to stay by their guns. So there’s one man on the phone, sitting on his guns who has to be on watch all the time. The other three or four of them could lay down on the decking if they wanted to. But they couldn’t leave the deck. They had to be in their positions. Now, apparently, I don’t know who organised it to this day, how it was worked out but the body during the middle watch was taken up and laid alongside the now prone sleeping sailors who were dozing off during the middle watch. When it came to the end of the watch they all sort of woke themselves up and started to come down the deck for their food and which left one bod laying down who nobody knew about. So, ‘Come on Harry, what the hell are you doing.’ You know. ‘Get up. It’s the end of the watch.’ And of course, that’s what they’d done they’d put the body on the deck at the same time [laughs] So —
Interviewer: Military humour never changes does it?
RH: No. No.
Interviewer: Yeah.
RH: But —
Interviewer: Ok. Well, thank you very much Reg. We’ve come to the end of the time now.
RH: Yeah. That’s alright.
Interviewer: It’s a wonderful tale you’ve told there. Very eloquent. Thank you very much and we will be in touch with you. Ok.
RH: Alright. Fine. Yeah.


Dave Harrigan and This Interview was recorded by Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire., “Interview with Reginald John Herring,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 28, 2024,

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