How a British socialite became a heroic WWII spy

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Diana Rowden was bred to become a prim and proper British society girl, but she chose a radically different path. She became a spy, defending France from the Nazis during World War II, delivering messages to resistance workers and helping to sabotage a factory making Nazi tanks. Ultimately she was betrayed by a double agent and killed, at age 29, in a concentration camp.

Diana Rowden

Despite her heroic life, her story has remained largely untold — until now with the publication of “Her Finest Hour, The Heroic Life of Diana Rowden, Wartime Secret Agent” (Amberley Publishing) by Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell. McDonald-Rothwell, a historian who has written three previous books about WWII secret agents, was shocked the young woman had been so overlooked by history. “I thought, ‘Something is very wrong here. Her story was crying to be told.’ ”

Rowden, who was born in 1915 to “an illustrious and extended family of army officers, clerics and lawyers,” spent her childhood in the South of France and fell in love with the country, returning to study languages at the Sorbonne in Paris.

When war broke out in France, Rowden stayed, joining the Red Cross, where she was a nurse and then an ambulance driver, helping downed airmen and wounded soldiers get to escape routes to Spain and Portugal through the Pyrenees. In 1941, when it became too dangerous for British citizens to remain in France any longer, she reluctantly returned to England and soon joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

But “her only thought was to return to the country that she loved. She was desperate to do something for the war effort,” says McDonald-Rothwell. “Two things motivated her: an intense love for the French and an intense hatred of the Germans.” As an ambulance driver in France she had witnessed the atrocities of the Germans — women, children, the elderly and even animals mowed down on the roads as they fled, strafed by German planes.

Her language skills soon caught the attention of the local office of the SOE — the Special Operations Executive, an organization established by Winston Churchill of agents sent to fight behind enemy lines. The SOE desperately needed British citizens who could pass as French to be deployed there ahead of the Allied invasion. The mission of the SOE was to sabotage infrastructure and relay messages from British headquarters to other agents and resistance workers within France.

In 1943, Rowden got her wish. She was flown back to her adopted homeland as “Juliet Rondeau” — an orphaned Frenchwoman from Caen who worked in a shop and taught languages for extra money. She became a courier, delivering and retrieving secret radio messages by bicycle and train throughout France.

She also helped with clandestine airdrops of arms and ammunition, which would be parachuted to the ground in the dead of night.

Rowden would help lay the flares to guide the pilots to landing strips in fields where they could drop their packages.

Her work was dangerous. The Gestapo knew there were Allied agents in the country, and she constantly had to stay one step ahead of them. Although she spoke French perfectly, she looked British, with her fair skin, freckles and reddish hair.

Natzweiler concentration camp, where Rowden’s life ended.

She “even walked like a British person,” according to one person who knew her, writes McDonald-Rothwell.

Rowden was always on her guard — even the French were suspect because many hated the resistance workers and the secret agents for bringing savage reprisals from the Germans on their heads. Asking for a cafe au lait could have meant death — all true French people knew that that beverage hadn’t been available for years due to food shortages in the country.

Still, Rowden — along with the other SOE agents and French resistance members — pulled off a major coup: sabotaging the Peugeot car factory which, under German orders, was making tank turrets and aircraft engine parts. The mission set back Nazi tank-making operations for three months and infuriated the Germans.

During one mission, Rowden was on a train when she began to suspect she was being followed. She walked to the window of the train and watched the other passengers in its reflection. She soon noticed two Gestapo agents, obvious in their felt hats and overcoats, smoking cigarettes. Exceptionally calm and clear-headed, she returned to her seat, pretending she hadn’t seen them. When the train stopped, she waited until the very last second, then got off, successfully leaving them behind.

Rowden knew the Germans had a description of her, so she dyed her hair blond, cut it short and changed her code name to ‘Marcelle.’

By then Rowden knew the Germans had a description of her, so she dyed her hair blond, cut it short and changed her code name to “Marcelle,” pretending to be a sick cousin of the cafe owner with whom she took refuge in Epy. She kept indoors most days, but one day when she was out shopping for groceries, she was picked up during a routine roundup. She was questioned at the local Gestapo headquarters and thrown in a cell. Interrogated for hours, she never cracked. “They could not break her story,” says McDonald-Rothwell.

Next she was sent to a sawmill in the French village of Clairvaux-le-Lacs, in the Jura region of France where the Janier-Dubry family was running the local resistance effort. She had only been in France for six months, but she was at her happiest. She was doing work she loved in a beautiful part of the country. She knew D-Day was fast approaching and planned to come back there to live, with her mother, when the war ended. But her days were already numbered.

Unbeknownst to her, an undercover British agent deployed to France had been captured. Either a German agent or a Frenchman working for the Germans impersonated him and showed up at the sawmill, where he passed himself off as a new spy, “Benoit.” The family and the spies planned a celebratory dinner that night to welcome the new man, whom they had been eagerly waiting for.

An undercover British agent who passed himself off as a new spy, “Benoit.”

Rowden took “Benoit” to town, where she introduced him to other members of the resistance. But as they returned home, they were followed by the Gestapo, who appeared at the sawmill minutes later, brandishing guns.

Rowden, the other agents and resistance workers and the entire Janier-Dubry family were rounded up.

Rowden was taken for interrogation by the SS in Paris and imprisoned for six months. She was eventually taken, along with three other female agents from other parts of France, to the Natzweiler concentration camp. Shortly after D-Day, the orders came from Nazi headquarters: Execute all four of them.

A Dutch prisoner who was also in Natzweiler wrote in his diary about the day the women arrived. “Four summery girls with lovely long hair and gently swaying skirts, some with bare arms, all with bare legs. They looked around. They seemed like angels from heaven.”

That night the women were given what they were told were typhoid inoculations but were instead lethal doses of the drug phenol. Their bodies were thrown into the crematorium. At a trial following the war, witnesses said that either one or all of the women were still alive when they were forced into the oven. One shouted “Viva la France!” just before she burned.

Although McDonald-Rothwell wishes the British would erect a monument to the young woman who made the ultimate sacrifice for the war, she’s honored to at least bring Rowden back to life in her book.

Writing it, she says, “became a bit of a spiritual experience for me. I began to feel that Diana had been waiting for me to tell her story.”



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