WW2 Spy Story – Novel Construction and Research by JJ Toner

Posted by on Sep 2, 2013 in Historical Research, World War Two | 3 comments

The-Black-Orchestra185x280The original idea for The Black Orchestra came to me after reading two books on German WW2 spies in Ireland:

Spies in Ireland by Enno Stephan, Four Squares, 1965

Irish Secrets by Mark M. Hull, Irish Academic Press, 2003

These books were full of laughable tales involving spies in Ireland who were badly trained and ill-equipped. Most were picked up quickly by the Irish police and interned for the duration of the war. I remembered having read somewhere that the senior members of the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) led by Admiral Canaris and Hans Oster, were said to have worked in secret to undermine the Third Reich. Both Canaris and Oster were executed by the Nazis as the war came to an end. Putting 2 and 2 together gave me the kernel of the plot for The Black Orchestra.

Before writing the book, I read at least a dozen books (mostly fiction) set in the period. I found a map of 1939 Berlin on the Internet, and set about researching many small details about what it was like living in Berlin during the early years of the war, details like these:

What food and drink did Berliners have access to?

Was coffee available? From when did it become scarce?

When was food rationing brought in?

What clothes did people wear? Was clothing rationed?

Was beer rationed?

How widespread were private telephones in Berlin?

Were the phones tapped by the Gestapo? All of them?

What about public phone boxes – were they tapped?

I know that Jazz was considered ‘decadent’. Did people still have jazz records?

Did ordinary people have radios?

How much did things cost? What levels of salaries/wages were people earning?

Details of public transport – buses and surface railways.

When was the U-bahn (the Berlin underground) built?

Details about Berlin railway stations.

From when were travel permits required to use the railways?

Were bicycles common? (Someone told me that they were all melted down to make bullets!)

Were domestic flights allowed?

What about international flights to neutral countries?

Where were there open-air markets in Berlin?

What was bought and sold on the black market?

What sort of cigarettes did people smoke?

Details about Wehrmacht and SS ranks.

Details about short wave radio transmitter/receivers used by spies. Could they communicate over long distances (Berlin to Dublin)?

Some of the questions I had to answer were more fundamental to the storyline:

What did ordinary people believe/feel about the Communist party “threat”?

What was people’s perception of Hitler? Of Reinhard Heydrich and the other Nazi leaders?

Was membership in the Nazi party mandatory for people in the public service? In the armed services?

What was the role of each of the various branches of the police, ORPO, KRIPO and Gestapo?

What did the man in the street know about the Nazi purges of the Jews in the early war years?

From this research came The Black Orchestra, which opens in 1939 as the German war machine has invaded Poland and is advancing west toward France. In Berlin, Kurt Muller, an Abwehr signalman, discovers a colleague lying dead at his radio receiver. The criminal police dismiss the death as suicide, but Kurt is not convinced. Kurt follows a trail of mysteries, witnessing several atrocities that expose the Nazi regime for what it truly is. When the trail leads him to the German resistance, he faces the most difficult choices of his life. He must choose between his duty and his conscience, between his country and his family, between love and death.

I’m working on a sequel, set in 1943, and have been busy adding to my research for that.

JJ Toner, September 2, 2013


  1. Many thanks for having me on your blog, Mary Lou.

  2. Sounds interesting. I love that era and have read a lot of fiction set there. Tough times!

  3. I’m curious about the title. Relates to the color of the uniform or operations? I have a novel about WW II in Norway. I’m waiting for contest results and one last time pitching it, then I think I’ll publish it.

    For my research, I stumbled across two book published by Royal Naval Intelligence. Essentially spy books, but in plain sight on my college library’s self. It was created in response to a disastrous attempt to take back Norway in the early days, but the lack of proper maps led to terrible losses by English, French and Polish soldiers sent in. Maps, local town info, bus and train schedules,location of refineries, culture. A great help to setting the scene.

    Good luck with your story.