Obituary: Sybil Flory, teacher who made dramatic escape from Rangoon as Japanese planes bombed city

Sybil Flory, teacher, seamstress and chemist's assistant. Born: 8 April, 1920 in Burma. Died: 2 September, 2017 in Huntly, aged 97

Sybil Flory pictured just after arriving in Scotland
Sybil Flory pictured just after arriving in Scotland

Under sunny skies on a beautiful Burmese morning, Sybil Le Fleur was strolling the streets of Rangoon making final preparations for Christmas 1941.

The 21-year-old had just left her younger sister Blanche and baby nephew and had some last-minute shopping to do with her best friend Bertha.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The festivities were just two days away and the city’s market stalls were bustling when, out of the clear blue sky, dozens of planes began to appear. At first Blanche, who had been taking her little boy to the park, and Sybil thought they were British aircraft. Neither could have imagined the horror that was about to be unleashed or that it would wrench them apart for the following 66 years.

The aircraft, an invasion force of the Japanese Imperial Army Air Service, began raining down bombs on the civilian population and military targets. Panic erupted in the city and the streets were quickly filled with rubble and bodies. Sybil and Blanche fled in opposite directions.

Though each survived, they would not meet again until 2007 by which time the pretty young women who had parted company that December morning had become silver-haired octogenarians, reunited by sheer luck.

Their extraordinary tale began in their birthplace of Syriam, across the river from Rangoon, where they grew up with an elder brother and sister in an idyllic, middle-class home with domestic staff. Their father was a French engineer, their mother Burmese, and the family enjoyed a wealthy lifestyle.

With just two years between Sybil and Blanche, the girls were inseparable, particularly after their mother died in childbirth when they were just six and four. By the time the Japanese attacked Rangoon they had also lost their father.

That first assault on 23 December, 1941 was followed by a further attack on Christmas Day and continuing bombardment through January and February until the city was evacuated as it burned at the beginning of March.

Sybil, who had been a primary school teacher and a seamstress at Rangoon’s renowned department store Rowe & Co, escaped the devastated city with her best friend’s family. Bertha’s father, a silk merchant, told Sybil there was no way they could return to look for her family – the only option was to flee.

Sybil was given the role of caring for the family’s baby son during the journey and somehow they all managed to make their way almost 1,000 miles north to Myitkyina, where they reached a refugee camp. Their escape there had been traumatic and dangerous and the agonising wait to be airlifted out of the country was equally harrowing.

Thousands waited alongside them enduring dreadful conditions and the constant fear of attack until, eventually, four months after leaving Rangoon, Sybil and the family were flown out to India. And enemy activity in the skies around their intended destination of Chittagong forced their aircraft to divert to Dibrugarh in north India instead.

From there, still in the bosom of her friend’s family, she travelled to Calcutta – where she enjoyed her first proper bath for months – and then on Meerut in Uttar Pradesh where the family had friends. In Meerut Sybil joined the British Army, becoming a private in the Royal Medical Corps and working as a telephonist at the British Military Hospital.

Soon the beautiful new member of staff had attracted the attention of several suitors, including the hospital pharmacist, soldier Reid Flory from North-east Scotland. By August 1943 they were married and within a couple of years had two children, Ian and Flora.

Sybil already had some knowledge of Scotland, having been taught by Scottish nuns at her Rangoon boarding school, and after the war ended she embarked on a new life here. She and the two children left Bombay by sea, arriving in Glasgow in February 1946.

They moved into the family home in Ellon, Aberdeenshire, their family soon expanding with the birth of a second daughter, Evelyn, that December and a second son Derek a few years later.

The family later moved to Huntly, where Reid became the town’s last provost and the couple ran a pharmacy which Sybil became more involved in as the children grew up. As her husband’s assistant and the wife of the provost, her life was full. She was active in her local church, played bowls competitively all over Scotland and was president of the Townswomen’s Guild.

She never forgot Blanche but had more or less resigned herself to the probability she would never see her sister again. Burma had also become a closed country, making any communication more difficult, and any attempts to trace Blanche had been fruitless.

Meanwhile, Blanche had never given up hope of finding Sybil and though she had faith her sister had survived, she, too, had drawn a blank. It was almost a last roll of the dice that brought the two together.

Knowing that Derek’s wife had traced Reid’s ancestors after attending a genealogy course, Sybil asked if she could find her family. That very night they discovered Blanche.

Previous searches of their maiden name Le Fleur had been mis-spelled but this time they immediately found a link on the Britain-Burma Society website. A friend of Blanche had posted an appeal on her behalf, asking if anyone knew of Sybil. The post was more than a year old but by the following morning the friend had been in touch. Blanche was living in Calcutta but the sisters’ elder siblings had both died – their brother in Rangoon and their sister Australia.

They then learned that after that fateful day in December 1941 Blanche had spent a further three years under Japanese occupation in Burma. She fled to Calcutta in 1958 but had been looking for Sybil her all her life and when they spoke on the phone her opening words were: “Where have you been Sybil? That’s the longest shopping trip you have ever been on.”

After leading separate lives for 66 years, they met in Calcutta in October 2007, when Sybil was 87 and Blanche was 85, and discovered that they had each had two sons and two daughters, with two of their girls sharing the same birthday.

Their astonishing story was retold by Derek in a book, Torn Apart, which led to Sybil appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2008 where she entertained the audience for an hour, and being interviewed by Clare Balding for BBC Radio 4.

Blanche died in 2011 and Sybil, who was also predeceased by her husband and son Ian, is survived by her daughters Flora and Evelyn and son Derek.