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Diana Rowden

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Title: Diana Rowden  
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Subject: SOE F Section timeline, Natzweiler-Struthof, Sonya Olschanezky, Eliane Plewman, The Holocaust in France
Collection: 1915 Births, 1944 Deaths, British Military Personnel Killed in World War II, British People Executed by Lethal Injection, British People Executed in Nazi Concentration Camps, British People Who Died in Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp, Chevaliers of the Légion D'Honneur, Executed People from London, Executed Spies, Female Wartime Spies, Members of the Order of the British Empire, People Executed by Germany by Lethal Injection, People from East Sussex, Recipients of the Croix De Guerre (France), Recipients of the Croix De Guerre 1939–1945 (France), Special Operations Executive Personnel, Spies Who Died in Nazi Concentration Camps, University of Paris Alumni, Women's Auxiliary Air Force Officers
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Diana Rowden

Diana Rowden
Nickname(s) Paulette
Born (1915-01-31)31 January 1915
Died 6 July 1944(1944-07-06) (aged 29)
Natzweiler-Struthof, France
Allegiance United Kingdom, France
Service/branch WAAF, Special Operations Executive
Years of service 1941-1944
Rank Section Officer/Field agent (Courier)
Commands held Acrobat, Stockbroker
Awards MBE
Croix de Guerre
Mentioned in Despatches

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.


  • Early life 1
  • World War II service 2
  • SOE work 3
  • Capture and death 4
  • Posthumous 5
  • References 6

Early life

Born in England, Rowden was the daughter of British Army Major Aldred Clement Rowden and his wife, Muriel Christian Maitland-Makgill-Crichton, whom he married on 16 July 1913 at St Mark's, North Audley Street in London's fashionable Mayfair district.[1] The marriage was not successful and her parents separated when she was still a young child, whereupon she moved with her mother and two younger brothers, Maurice Edward Alfred and Cecil William Aldred, to southern France.[2]

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.[3]

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 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.

SOE 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 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 under the Nazi practice of Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog), 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 (later withdrawn due to the policy on posthumous awards of this order)[4] 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.[5]


  1. ^ "Pedigree sept for Bromyard, Herefordshire, England". 2012-03-28. Retrieved 2012-11-08. 
  2. ^ Gavin Rowden (1997-09-26). "Diana Hope Rowden - WW2 SOE Agent". Retrieved 2012-11-08. 
  3. ^ The Longcrofts: 500 Years of a British Family, by James Phillips-Evans, pub. 2012
  4. ^ Beryl E. Escott, ‘Women agents on active service in France (act. 1942–1944)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2014 [1], accessed 6 Nov 2014]
  5. ^ "Conscript Heroes"
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