By Mark McConville
THE HEROIC tale of one of Britain’s little-known and tragic female World War Two secret agents has been told for the first time in a new book.
Diana Rowden served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force before becoming an agent in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – the precursor to what is now known as the British Secret Service, or MI6.
She was a member of SOE’s Acrobat circuit in occupied France during WWII where she operated as a courier before being betrayed by her own side.
She was arrested by the Gestapo and subsequently executed along with three other women via lethal injection at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp.
Diana’s full exploits behind enemy lines have been told for the first time in Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell’s new book, Her Finest Hour, published by Amberley.
“Diana had been working as a courier in the Jura– a particularly dangerous area in France as the Germans knew English agents were in the zone, and with the Allies on the offensive that the end of the war was in sight,” writes Ms McDonald-Rothwell.
“The Jura was an area riddled with Nazis, double and even triple agents, spies in the pay of the German Gestapo, thieves and murderers– people only too happy to throw in their lot with the occupying forces.
“The story of Diana Hope Rowden has never been told in full, and, in the words of Maurice Buckmaster, head of the French Section of SOE, ‘The stories of some of Diana’s contempories have to a large extent eclipsed her magnificent record.’”
With another British agent, John Young, Diana had been living in Clairvaux-le-lacs under the care of the Janier-Dubry family, who owned the local sawmill.
Young was informed a new agent was to arrive at Clairvaux, named Andre Maugenet – codenamed Benoit.
But the SOE air operations man for France, Henri Dericourt, was a double-agent and alerted the Gestapo when he reached France. Maugenet was captured and interrogated.
When ‘Benoit’ arrived in the village – historians do not know if it was Maugenet or a German agent – he failed to give the codeword but was accepted any way.
He led the Gestapo to the saw mill where Rowden, Young and him were handcuffed and taken away.
Rowden had been interrogated by the SS in Paris before being moved to a civilian prison. She was then transferred to Natzweiler concentration camp with three other female agents – Andree Borrell, Vera Leigh and Sonya Olschanezky – where they would meet their gruesome end.
One night, the women were told to undress for a medical check and have an inoculation against typhus by a doctor, which was in fact what was considered a lethal 10cc dose of phenol. More than one witness talked of a struggle when the fourth woman was shoved into the furnace.
Posthumously Rowden was awarded an MBE as well as the Croix de Guerre by the French government.
Her Finest House: The Heroic Life of Diana Rowden, written by Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell and published by Amberley is available now. RRP £20.