Last year I talked to Greg Lewis about the female agents in the British Special Operations Executive, SOE, who Churchill had tasked with “setting Europe ablaze”. In this episode we’ll be looking specifically at Diana Rowden who was flown into France in 1943.
Diana spent her early years in the South of France before being sent to Public School in England. At the outbreak of war Diana was living in Paris with her mother. When Paris fell they fled south, but once her mother was safely on a boat back to England, Diana decided to remain in France. For over a year she moved through France avoiding being picked up by the Germans, when it got to “hot” she fled back to Britain.
When she finally became know to SOE she was an obvious fit for an agent to be sent to France. It was a huge risk and only a matter of time before she was picked up, which indeed she was. With four other women she was murdered at Natzweiler Concentration Camp in July 1944. She was 29 years of age.
Diana Rowden was a woman of the finest character. As an agent with the Special Operations Executive (SOE), she was dropped into France alongside Noor Inayat Khan and worked in the Resistance stronghold of the Franche-Comté department. Hunted at every turn by the Gestapo, Diana worked tirelessly for the Allied war effort, playing a part in the sabotage of the Peugeot factory at Sochaux and delivering frequent radio messages. In the ultimate tale of intrigue, Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell relates how Diana’s escapades ended in betrayal by one of her own colleagues, and describes the final desperation of the concentration camp where her war ended. This full biography, untold until now, attempts for the first time to honour Diana’s service to her country. At a time when the use of female secret agents was controversial and marred by establishment prejudices, Diana’s tragic life is here given its full recognition. Although she was later Mentioned in Despatches and awarded an MBE and the Croix de Guerre, this little known individual has all but vanished from the annals of Second World War history. This is a story of a woman who, with a singular bravery and devotion to duty, distinguished herself as one of the SOE’s finest agents.
I’m joined by Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell.
Gabrielle’s book Her Finest Hour: The Heroic Life of Diana Rowden, Wartime Secret Agent takes the reader through Dianna’s life”.
I didn’t realise when I started chatting to Gabrielle but she is married to Geoffrey Rothwell, he flew over 70 missions before being shot down. For patrons and supporters of the podcast I’ve made available a quick conversation I had with Gabrielle about her husband.