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'The last thing my dad saw was his IRA killer' - son of senior UDR man makes emotional visit to murder scene

'The killer just sprayed him with bullets'

Johnny Saunderson revisits the scene of his dad's murder.
Johnny Saunderson revisits the scene of his dad's murder.
May with her brother Michael McGavigan recall the killing of their sister Annette in the Bogside.
Johnny Saunderson
John Toner

By John Toner

The grief-stricken son of the most senior UDR man to be killed in the Troubles has revisited the scene of the brutal school murder.

Lieutenant Colonel George Saunderson was gunned down by the Provisional IRA in April 1974 in the kitchen of the Earl of Erne Primary School in Teemore, Co Fermanagh.

The well-liked schoolmaster had retired from the Ulster Defence Regiment a year before he was executed in front of his traumatised wife and young son by a group of six masked gunmen.

In highly emotional scenes in a new documentary being screened tomorrow, the grieving son of Lt Col Saunderson, Johnny, returned to the now abandoned schoolhouse where his father died in a hail of bullets.

During the programme Johnny points to the spot where his father was killed in the derelict school kitchen before touching the ground in a moment of reflection.

He said: "That exactly right there is where my father's body lay. That's where they gunned him down right there.

"Forty five years ago and it's like it's yesterday, unbelievable. Shell casings all here, the killer stood right here and just sprayed him with bullets. Pulled out his hand gun, pumped a few more into him and then walked away.

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"My mother stood crying over there. Crazy. It never occurred to me that this would happen.

"His job was a schoolteacher and headmaster but he had this other job in the UDR. It's just one moment in time but I remember it so clearly. I can see exactly how he was lying when he died.

"The last thing he saw on earth was standing there looking at his killer. No ghosts, just memories.

Colonel George Saunderson who was shot dead by the Provisional IRA on 10th April 1974 in the Earl of Erne Primary School in Teemore, County Fermanagh. Credit: SEFF
Colonel George Saunderson who was shot dead by the Provisional IRA on 10th April 1974 in the Earl of Erne Primary School in Teemore, County Fermanagh. Credit: SEFF

"It's strange, very strange to be back here. This is where he worked every day for the last 20 years of his life, I know every brick of it almost."

In the new BBC Documentary, Schools On The Frontline, Johnny Saunderson fondly remembers attending the school where his father was known simply as Master Saunderson.

"I can remember the first day I went to school, I really do, I was four years old. We lived right next to the school, a little primary school in the middle of nowhere, because my father was the headmaster," he said.

"When you went into school something flipped and he was 'sir' then. He wasn't dad or me da as I'd call him and it was always 'yes sir, no sir', you were just another pupil like anybody else.

"Everyone referred to him as The Master, he was highly respected because anybody and everybody in the Protestant circles had been taught by him. Others will tell you he was a man amongst men, he stood up.

"He was one of those people when he walked into a room you noticed that."

Johnny Saunderson at the scene of his dad's murder.
Johnny Saunderson at the scene of his dad's murder.

Taking a brief pause during the interview Mr Saunderson becomes visibly emotional, adding: "Sorry. He was a special man. Amongst friends he was the guy everybody looked up to and everybody would try to be.

"He was one of these guys, you'd want to be like him. I have to be honest that's the first time I've ever shed a tear, 45 years since he was murdered.

"We played here as kids and grew up with it, all the rhododendrons here were planted by him.

"I can feel him here, it's really strange."

Johnny, the last member of his family to leave Northern Ireland, who now lives in Vienna, later placed a small bunch of the rhododendrons growing outside the school on the spot where his father was killed.

Schools On The Frontline features interviews with a range of former schoolteachers, pupils and school staff who lived and suffered during through the Troubles.

These include a heart-rending testimony from two siblings of Annette McGavigan (14) who was shot dead by the British Army in September 1971 in the Bogside in Londonderry.

She was shot in the back of the head as she attempted to collect a rubber bullet from the ground for a school art class.

Her brother Michael tells the programme: "The school got out early for a protest or something and then there was rioting.

"They had went to collect souvenirs or whatever and wrong place at the wrong time the army opened fire onto the crowd and Annette was shot.

"Annette was shot in the back of the head running away and when I came down the street her body had been taken into a house and somebody said to me, 'need to go over home'.

"We were crying, I was crying all over the street. We kept hoping it wasn't true and saying 'it must be wrong, it must be wrong' It was like a dream but it was a nightmare what was happening.

"At 11 years of age that will stick with me the rest of my life."

Michael and his sister May show filmmakers some of their sister's precious possessions they have kept since her killing including her bloodstained plimsolls and plaid skirt.

He added: "These are the plimsolls she was wearing the day she was shot. They're still bloodstained and they're starting to break up a bit.

"We don't want them to deteriorate much more, the plimsolls, the wee uniform and the books, that's all we have left.

"It shattered us as a family, it destroyed my mother. My mother used to sit up the stairs, my memories of coming home from school were just watching my mother staring at newspaper clippings and her (Annette's) clothes.

"We shouldn't have had to face that, you know, finding your mother in the hot press with Annette's clothes hugging them and crying. There is a part missing that we will never get back."

Schools On The Frontline is on tomorrow night at 9pm on BBC One Northern Ireland.

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