A FORMER UDR soldier who turned an IRA ambush into one of the regiment’s finest hours has shared his remarkable story for the first time.
Fermanagh man Eric Glass is the most highly decorated soldier in the proud history of the regiment.
Former council dog warden by day — Corporal Glass of 4 UDR by night, this affable family man looks an unlikely hero sitting in the living room of his house in Ulster’s picturesque Lakelands, but his fighting spirit is without question.
Having been shot in the shoulder during a failed attempt on his life in 1978, Eric could have been forgiven for going underground and beginning a safer new life elsewhere.
However, with the unwavering support of his exceptional family, not for one minute did he contemplate leaving his beloved Fermanagh or being intimidated out of his job with the council.
Defying countless terrorist threats, Eric continued with his daily routines at home and work until the IRA raised the stakes significantly on a winter morning in 1992.
In a rare interview, last week Eric told the News Letter how he faced his greatest challenge and still bears the scars — both physical and mental.
As Eric explained, he was taking his morning tea break when his secretary took a telephone call giving directions to the scene of an alleged dog attack.
“I asked her if the call was for me and she said it was so I spoke to him,” Eric said.
The voice belonged to an IRA gunman — one of a four-man gang staging a carefully planned ambush at a border farmhouse near Belleek.
“He didn’t sound nervous or anything. He just said his niece was down at the weekend and the wee dog had bit her on the face.
“Then he said ‘I don’t know what to do about it’ and kept asking me what time I would be down.”
The heavily armed gunmen had been in the house from the morning before, keeping the householder hostage.
“As I drove down the lane to the house I had my gun [a Walther pistol] under a coat on the front seat,” Eric recalled.
“The minute I pulled up one guy came to the driver’s door — he had a gun [an automatic rifle] with binder twine on it slung round his neck — and the other one had a revolver. They came running out shouting and swearing ‘get out of the van — IRA’.
“The one with the revolver ran up to the passenger door.
“I cocked the gun and fired three shots out through the passenger side,” Eric said. The body of Joe MacManus, 21, from Sligo was later recovered from the scene.
“I swung round quick and pushed the door into the other guy. He had the rifle round his neck on the string and was going to use his hands to get me out of the van but he ran off.”
Eric took cover behind the front wheel of the van and opened fire on two further gunmen armed with Kalashnikov-type rifles behind a low wall no more than 20 metres away.
When one moved position and appeared at the side of the house, Eric took careful aim and pulled the trigger only to find he was out of ammunition.
“The magazine was empty but I had another one in my coat which was in the van.”
Eric would have to place himself in direct line of fire, running back around the open van door to retrieve his spare magazine. “I pulled out the coat, got the full mag and whacked it in to the gun.”
When the terrorists realised what was happening they closed in for the kill as Eric explained: “They ran down firing on automatic and that’s when I got the whacked on the legs.” Eric’s left leg had shattered below the knee and he was losing a lot of blood.
“With the new magazine on I fired back and somebody roared ‘two, three and four run for it’ and they disappeared into cover.
“When I shouted at the man in the house to phone for help he said he couldn’t as the boys would come back and shoot him.”
Worried he could lose consciousness before help was summoned, Eric hauled himself up on a brush shaft and made it to the phone in the hallway of the farmhouse.
“After I made the phone call [to the police] I looked out the window and saw one of them coming back up again. He went up to the boy that was shot and took his pistol.
“This was all happening maybe five or even ten minutes after it all started.
“I had only two or three rounds left at this stage and I remember thinking: ‘If he comes in for me now I’ll just lie here and let him shoot away at me.’ The adrenaline had all left the body and I couldn’t have cared less. I could see all the blood pouring out of my boots.”
The crew of a military helicopter coming to Eric’s assistance spotted the three remaining gunmen who were still at the scene.
They fled towards the border but were picked up by Garda officers and arrested.
At their subsequent trial in Dublin, Eric spent almost four full days in the witness box under cross-examination.
All three were eventually convicted and jailed for their role in the shooting.
Corporal Glass was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal — second only to the Victoria Cross — for his actions in the face of the enemy.
He was the only soldier to receive such a high honour in the 22-year-history of the Regiment.
His bravery earned him the respect and admiration of everyone connected with the UDR but, although thankful to be alive, he paid a high price for his heroism on that fateful day.
“I spent nine months in hospital because the bones in my left leg were shattered. Then when I eventually got our of hospital I found I didn’t have a job to go back to with the council. That was hard to come to terms with after all those years working there,” Eric explained.
Still reeling from the loss of his day job, the former dog warden was then paid a visit by representatives of the UDR’s personnel department.
Eric said he was “gutted” at the suggestion he would be better off leaving the Regiment.
“It took a lot out of me that day because I didn’t for one minute think I would have to leave the UDR. They were very good about it, and sympathetic OK, but it wasn’t nice to hear.
“In the end they explained everything about pensions and things like that and eventually convinced me it would be for the best.”
Welcome relief from the thought of enforced unemployment came in the form of a private audience with the Queen.
As Eric views his family as the real heroes of the story, he was delighted to have his wife with him at Buckingham Palace in 1993 for the Distinguished Conduct Medal presentation.
“We were the only two there and the Queen just chatted to us like a normal person. She asked me were we still living in the same house and then she turned to my wife and asked her how she dealt with it all.”
Despite leaving the Regiment in 1993, Eric remained a prime terrorist target and subsequently moved house to minimise the risk.
When the remaining members of the IRA gang were released from prison under the Good Friday Agreement, the police again visited the Glass family home to advise them of the need to review their personal security.
Despite his iconic status in the Regiment’s history, Eric says with typical humility, “I was fighting for my life.”
“I just happened to be an ordinary person called on to do something extraordinary at the time, but I worked with a lot of very brave men and women.”
- SEE FRIDAY’S NEWS LETTER FOR A SPECIAL 16-PAGE SUPPLEMENT IN TRIBUTE TO THE UDR