Her Finest Hour: The Heroic Life of Diana Rowden by Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell
Many people have asked me what prompted me as a New Zealander living many thousands of miles from the UK to write this book – a book about Diana Rowden, a lone English woman, an agent and courier for the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
The story of how I began to write this biography began around the year 2004 when a friend of my mother’s, Don Miles who had himself been a member of SOE, asked me if I had heard of a woman agent named Diana Rowden. Did I know what had happened to her and why was there so little written about her? We discussed this, and I had to admit, even though I was a war historian and familiar with the SOE I could not enlighten him on Diana. Eventually I started to research her, finding her name mentioned on the odd occasion in books about women agents of SOE.
And then, out of the blue I remembered a documentary I had seen on television one night during the 1980s. Images … women dressed in the style and fashion of the 1940s … their heads bowed to the ground, two with dark hair, another with died blond hair, and a fair women, a ribbon in her hair, walking down some steps, a guard tower, Germans with rifles, a door leading into a building like a crematorium … the camera walking them back up the stairs and then down again, a woman with grey hair speaking English slowly, deliberately, surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke. Was this documentary something to do with Diana Rowden … had she been one of these women?
The months passed and I continued my research into Diana’s life. She had worked in the Jura region of France, a particularly dangerous area as the Germans knew agents were in the zone, and with the Allies on the offensive that the end of the war was in sight. 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. And then her disastrous arrest with her radio operator, John Young. Through no fault of her own Diana was arrested by a double agent and in the company of three other women agents was executed in a camp called Natzweiler in the Vosges Mountains.
Natzweiler … the memory now makes me shiver. I will come back to this.
Over a period of time two books were recommended to me – ‘Death Be Not Proud’ by Elisabeth Nicholas and ‘Flames in the Field’ by Rita Kramer. They were of immense help and made me even more determined to write Diana’ full biography. An idea began to grow – I would go to Alsace and visit the camp where Diana had died.
In 2005 in the company of my sister we made the long journey from Auckland to Alsace. It was a grey day when we visited. The first thing we noticed was the absence of birds and other wild life, just an eerie and deathly silence which hung over the deserted camp. A huge white monument to the fallen stood near the entrance, while steps led down to the buildings used to house the prisoners far below. Everything was as it had been: the crematorium, the prisoners’ cells, the guard houses. A lone shoe lay at the entrance to the crematorium, old and shabby as if somebody had carelessly thrown it to one side. The oven was so small I wondered how a human body was able to fit in to its narrow cavity. I walked outside into the fresh alpine air and read the inscription on the plaque dedicated to the four SOE women agents.
Natzweiler was a camp of hell; a men’s camp. The men were beaten by guards, starved and forced to work in a quarry all day regardless of their health. Most were suffering from disease, malnutrition and many collapsed and died on the spot. Some of the prisoners were classified Nacht und Nebel – those deemed to disappear into the night and fog.
This was the environment which the four young women found themselves in July 1944 after being arrested and interned in France. But it was Diana’s story which kept me awake at night. I came away from my trip to Alsace with one thought only … I knew very clearly what I wanted to do and nothing would defer me from the task: I would write Diana’s story and tell the world what she had done. Never again would she be the unknown agent.
Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell's new book Her Finest Hour: The Heroic Life of Diana Rowden, Wartime Secret Agent is available for purchase now