Tom Murray, the son of a small tenant farmer, was born in Aberdeenshie in 1900. In his youth he joined the Independent Labour Party but later became a member of the Communist Party. He eventually became a town councillor in Edinburgh.
Murray was a supporter of the Popular Front government in Spain. Soon after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he joined the International Brigades where he became a political commissar. His sister, Annie Murray, also went as a nurse in a British Medical Unit working with the Republican Army.
After returning to Scotland Murray remained active in left-wing politics. Tom Murray died in 1983.
The role of the commissar of course is an extremely interesting one and a valuable aspect of a popular army. You see, in the days of Cromwell and the Roundheads, they had what was similar to commissars, but they weren't called commissars - they were really religious to some extent. But it's noteworthy that the commissar in the Spanish army had a dual role. He had an equal military status with the commander of the unit to which we was attached as commissar. But he never interfered with the commander unless he felt that something required to be corrected. All the time I was a commissar Jack Nalty, an Irishman, was our company commander, and a very capable man he was. Unfortunately, he was killed in the last stages of the War. Jack Nalty and I of course ran this organization of the Company and only on one occasion did I exercise my authority as a commissar against him. He was dead beat and we were marching along a road with the machine guns and I was becoming more and more conscious of the feeling that we were going in the wrong direction. I said to him, "Well now, don't you think you should halt the Company and let us think about it?" Oh, he wasn't in favour. He says, "We're all right." "Well," I says, "I'm afraid that I've got to exercise my authority as commissar," and I halted the Company. A runner from the British Battalion, whose commissar was Bob Cooney, had been sent down in fact to see where we were. And right enough, if we'd gone round another corner we'd have been bang into a group of Fascists with machine guns. That was the only occasion on which I exercised my authority to supersede the function of the commander of the company. But it illustrates the high responsibility which rested on the shoulders of the commissar.
The commissar was the master of all trades, as it were. Our job was to look after the welfare of the personnel, their clothing, their recreation, their food, the distribution of food, and the general military efficiency. The military efficiency of course was the primary consideration over-shadowing everything else, and we had the job of dealing with any people who were browned off or who had been there maybe for a long time and had come back into the company from the
front, from the earlier actions before the rest of us were there at all. And some of them of course were exhausted, mentally and physically exhausted and we had to get them back to a normal state by whatever form of special treatment that was desirable.
One of the jobs of the commissar when people were killed was to take their personal effects off their bodies and send them home to their people. Also our job was to bury the dead. And as a matter of fact, up on these sierras or mountains, Sierra Pandols, you could scarcely get enough earth to cover them. It was a most difficult job finding ways and means of covering the dead bodies.
Then another job that the commissar had to do was to create a wall newspaper. And we had wall newspapers with all kinds of press cuttings and contributions from various people who were writing up little stories and so on, and writing up reminiscences and their observations and so on. And the wall newspaper was always a popular rendezvous for people to meet and discuss things.
The crossing of the Ebro at night was a remarkable performance. The pontoons consisted of narrow buoyant sections tied together and men would sit straddled across the junctions of these sections to hold them firm, because the Ebro was a very fast-flowing river. And then others went across in boats. The mules were swum across. We went across the pontoons carrying our weapons, our machine guns. We had light machine guns as well as the heavy ones. We had five machine gun groups in our Company. No two people had to be on one section at the same time. We got across all right, lined up and marched up to the top of the hill.
The Fascists got scared stiff. They had been about to celebrate Mass, some of them, down in the valley, and there were tons, great streams of white muslin, which had been part of the preparation for this mass. We used them as mosquito nets, as a matter of fact, later on.
But we crossed the Ebro and made a rapid advance towards Gandesa. The real fighting then began, because the Nazi German planes were sent back and they bombed us like the devil. However we got our machine guns set up and we defended ourselves. I think we maybe made a tactical mistake in not rushing down right past and round Gandesa to prevent the Fascists fortifying it, which they did next day.