Diana Rowden : biography
Diana Hope Rowden MBE (31 January 1915 – 6 July 1944) was a Special Operations Executive (SOE) member who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp.
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 at Wanborough Manor. On 16 June 1943 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 Renshaw Starr.
Her duties included acting as a courier, delivering messages to other agents and members of the underground in Marseille, 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 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.
Capture and death
In mid-November 1943, they were told by wireless from Baker Street to expect the arrival of a new agent. On 18 November, 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. The 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 13 May 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. Only Sansom-Hallowes survived the war.
On 6 July 1944, Rowden, Leigh, Borrel, and Olschanezky were shipped to the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace (France), where they are thought to have been injected with phenol and disposed of in the crematorium. They were meant to disappear without a trace, but their arrival at the concentration camp was witnessed by captured SOE agent Brian Stonehouse and Albert Guérisse, a member of the Belgian Resistance.
Posthumously, she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire and Mentioned in Despatches and in France she was appointed a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur and awarded the Croix de Guerre 1939-1945. 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 Honour" 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: a plaque to 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 Rowden and the other female SOE agents at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp just before their deaths, painted a watercolour of the four women which now hangs in the Special Forces Club in London.
Born in England, the daughter of British Army Major Aldred Rowden and his wife Muriel Christian (née Maitland-Makgill). Her parents separated and she moved with her mother and two younger brothers, Maurice Edward Alfred and Cecil William Aldred Rowden, to southern France when she was still a young girl. She attended schools in Sanremo 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 to France and enrolled at the Sorbonne, before finding employment as a journalist in Paris.The Longcrofts: 500 Years of a British Family, by James Phillips-Evans, pub. 2012
World War II service
When the Second World 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 1941, 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-Marsh, where she was promoted to Section officer.
During a brief hospitalisation in the West Country, Rowden met a convalescing pilot who had been working for the French Section of SOE. 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.
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