Teacher who evaded the Japanese in Burma and found her sister many decades later

Born: April 8, 1920;

Died: September 2, 2017.

SYBIL Flory, who has died in Huntly in Aberdeenshire aged 97, was a teacher who became well known for her extraordinary story of evading the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War and the many years it took for her to be reunited with her sister, from whom she had been separated in December 1941 in Rangoon.

The Le Fleur sisters, Sybil and Blanche, were preparing for Christmas when a ferocious air bombardment by the Japanese caused havoc to the centre of the city. In the chaos the sisters fled in opposite directions – neither knowing of the other’s whereabouts let alone if the other one was alive. That was to remain unchanged for 65 years.

Sybil Flory spent some months in refugee camps, where dysentery and starvation were rife, before finding a passage back to Britain via Calcutta. Blanche and her baby lived in Burma under Japanese occupation for three torrid years.

Sybil Le Fleur was the daughter of a Burmese mother and a French engineer. Both her parents died when she was a child and the sisters grew up together and became close. They attended St Philomena’s Convent School in Rangoon where they were taught by Scottish nuns and performed Stop Yer Tickling, Jock. Sybil then worked as a seamstress in a department store and as a primary school teacher.

She was able to escape from Rangoon with the help of long-standing family friends and voyaged north under hostile and terrible conditions. She then travelled to Meerut in Uttar Pradesh where she was determined to contribute to the war effort and worked as a telephonist with the Royal Army Medical Corps.

While there she met at the hospital Reid Flory, a Scottish pharmacist who had served with the 51st Highland Division and had been one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from Dunkirk. He was then posted to Burma and they were married in August 1943.

They returned to the UK in 1946 with their two children, sailing up the Clyde in a snow storm, and set up home initially in Ellon in Aberdeenshire. Latterly they moved to Huntly where Mrs Flory was her husband’s assistant in his pharmacy. They lived a busy social life and played an active part in the local community – Reid Flory was the last provost of Huntly in 1973. In addition to civic duties Mrs Flory was a keen member of the bowling club and president of the Townswomen’s Guild. She remained a devout Catholic all her life and a member of St Margaret’s Church in Huntly.

But Mrs Flory never stopped trying to get in touch with her sister. Her attempts had proved unsuccessful despite exhaustive enquiries. She approached the Britain-Burma Society and it transpired there had been a mix up with the spelling of their maiden name. The society’s records, indeed, showed a Blanche Flory who was keen to contact her sister. After further investigations the sisters were put in touch with each other in 2007.

"When my mum spoke to her sister it was like they had never been apart," said Sybil’s son Derek.

Blanche Flory, who had lived in Calcutta since 1958, greeted her sister joyously. Her first words to Sybil were, “Where have you been, Sybil? That’s the longest shopping trip you have ever been on.” In turn Sybil commented, “I missed Blanche terribly and spoke about her all the time to my family, but I never thought I'd see her again. Now, every Sunday we speak on the phone for three hours."

Mrs Flory was 87 when she flew to Calcutta in 2007 to meet her 85-year-old sister. It turned out that the sisters had had two boys and two girls each and, astonishingly, Sybil Flory’s daughter Flora and Blanche’s daughter Anita share the same birthday.

Derek Flory captured the charm and drama of his mother and aunt’s life in a heart-rending account of their lives in his book Torn Apart which was published by Mainstream in 2008. His poignant account of their reunion was uplifting but maintained a delightful element of humour.

In an interview that year, Mrs Flory explained how she had attempted to cope with her experiences. "I just didn't want to talk about it," she said. "I wondered what had happened, whether Blanche was dead or not, and also about my brother and other sister, Eunice. I just got on with it. I was lucky that I had a good husband, in-laws and children. I gave all my time to them, that's what I did with my life."

Derek said of writing the book: "I had this vague idea that Mum had escaped from the Japanese. But to her this isn't anything special, it's just her life. I started to think of her as this remarkable person. Then we discovered this extended family. It was a revelation."

To promote her son's book, Sybil Flory appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where she regaled the audience with stories for an hour. Derek told The Herald: “The Edinburgh Book Festival was a great success for mum. I had been concerned that at the age of 88 she might have been reluctant to do it but she was very enthusiastic. The event was sold out. Mum was in sparkling form, laughing and telling funny stories to the audience and had the audience laughing and crying.” Sybil attended other book signings in Scotland – notably at Huntly and was interviewed by Clare Balding for Radio 4.

Sybil Flory is survived by her son and two daughters. Her husband and sister Blanche both predeceased her.