Diana Rowden

Diana Hope Rowden was born January 31, 1915 in England, but as a young girl moved with her family to southern France.

She attended schools in Saint-Remo and Cannes on the French Riviera, but her family soon returned to England, settling at Hadlow Down, near Mayfield, East Sussex, where she continued her education at Manor House School in Limpsfield, Surrey.

In 1933 she returned again to France to enroll at the Sorbonne before finding employment as a journalist in Paris.

When the war began, she joined the French Red Cross, being assigned to the Anglo-American Ambulance Corps.

The allied collapse in May 1940 prevented her evacuation from France and she remained there until the summer of 1941 when she escaped to England via Spain and Portugal.

In September of the same year she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, working at the Department of the Chief of Air Staff as Assistant Section Officer for Intelligence duties, before being posted in July 1942 to Moreton-in-the-March, where she was promoted to Section Officer.

She first came to the attention of the Special Operations Executive when Harry Sporborg, a senior SOE staff member, saw her file and requested that she be appointed his secretary. Having already joined the WAAF, she began military training instead. Some months later she happened to meet Squadron Leader William Simpson, who worked part-time for SOE and with whom she discussed her desire to return to France and take part in resistance work. In early March 1943 she received an invitation to a preliminary interview with an officer of SOE F Section, and on 18 March began her training.

On June 16th she was flown to a location north-east of Angers in the Loire Valley in occupied France with fellow-agents Noor Inayat Khan and Cecily Lefort, where they were met by Henri Dericourt, the air movements officer for F section.

From there, she made her way to St. Amour where she was assigned to the Acrobat network, led by John Starr. Her duties included that of a courier, delivering messages to other agents and members of the underground in Marseilles, Lyon and Paris. She also helped agent Harry Rée plan the destruction of the Peugeot factory at Sochaux, where tank turrets and aircraft engine parts were made.

A month after Rowden's arrival, network leader John Starr was arrested. Rowden and wireless operator John Young took refuge with a French family at the village of Clairvaux-les-Lacs, near Lons-le-Saunier.

In mid-November 1943, they were told by wireless from Baker Street to expect the arrival of a new agent. On November 18 the new arrival appeared, but turned out to be a false agent planted by the Germans. Rowden and Young were arrested that evening and taken to Lons-le-Saunier.

Next day Rowden was taken to 84 Avenue Foch, the Paris headquarters of the Sicherheitsdienst where she was interrogated for two weeks before being sent to Fresnes prison.

On May 13, 1944 Diana Rowden, along with arrested SOE agents Sonya Olschanezky, Andrée Borrel, Yolande Beekman, Vera Leigh, Eliane Plewman, Odette Sansom-Hallowes and Madeleine Damerment were moved to concentration camps in Germany.

On July 6, 1944, Rowden, Leigh, Borrel and Olschanezky were shipped to the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace (France) where they were injected with phenol and disposed of in the crematorium. They were meant to disappear without trace, but their arrival at the concentration camp was witnessed by captured PAT Line operator Albert Guerisse and SOE agent Brian Stonehouse.

Posthumously, she was awarded the MBE and Croix de Guerre.

Her name is registered with the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle, at the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey, England and on the "Roll of Honor" on the Valençay SOE Memorial in the town of Valençay, in the Indre département of France.

The concentration camp where she died is a now a French government historical site and a plaque to Diana Rowden and the three women who died with her is part of the Deportation Memorial on the site. In 1985, SOE agent and painter Brian Stonehouse, who saw Diana Rowden and the three other female SOE agents at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp just before their deaths, painted a poignant watercolour of the four women which now hangs in the Special Forces Club in London, England.

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