, LONDON, Jan 6 – Soldiers helped rescue stranded drivers on Wednesday as Britain\’s most brutal winter in decades caused chaos for travellers, and bitterly cold temperatures cloaked much of Europe.
Millions of people in London and the southeast of England woke up to heavy snow after storms spread overnight from Scotland and the north of England, where they have caused problems for days.
"The current cold weather started in mid-December and it has been the most prolonged spell of freezing conditions across the UK since December 1981," forecasters the Met Office said.
"Bitterly cold and wintry weather is forecast to continue for the next couple of weeks with further snowfall expected at times."
Southern counties could be hit by to 40 centimetres (16 inches) of snow, the Met Office said.
Much of the rest of Europe was also in the grip of freezing temperatures due to a weather front from Siberia.
Norway was among the coldest, with temperatures in the central town of Roeros falling to -41 degrees Celsius.
In the Netherlands, the ice was thick enough for the year\’s first natural skating event to be held. Up to 1,400 people were expected to take to the ice at the Henschoter Lake in Utrecht Wednesday to enjoy a two-kilometre circuit.
Snow and ice in France caused traffic problems in the west and southwest, including in Bordeaux. Forecasters expected more snow later and Normandy in the northwest was expected to be hardest hit.
Hungary was covered in snow, and motorists in the capital Budapest were warned not to use their cars. Parts of Italy saw torrential rain and officials feared the swollen Tiber River could threaten Rome in the coming days.
In Britain, transport links in densely-populated southern and central parts of England were snarled up by the cold weather.
The military was called in to help the drivers of up to 500 cars which were stranded overnight on a major road in Hampshire, southern England.
"The military have been working with us all night. They\’re helping people to get out of their cars and moving the cars to the side of the road so gritters can get through," a spokeswoman for the local police said.
Runways at London Gatwick, Stansted and Cardiff airports were closed as staff battled to clear snow.
Many trains were delayed or cancelled. Eurostar, the rail link which connects Britain with France and Belgium, ran a full service but warned of possible delays and cancellations.
Travellers could exchange their tickets for another day. Eurostar suffered several days of shutdowns before Christmas after trains broke down due to bad weather conditions.
Hundreds of schools around Britain were closed and football matches called off, including Wednesday night\’s League Cup semi-final between Manchester United and Manchester City.
Hospitals were also affected – all "non-urgent" operations in Oxford were cancelled.
The disruption turned the spotlight on infrastructure services in Britain.
The National Grid issued a "gas balancing alert" for only the second time ever on Monday after a 30 percent surge in demand because of the weather.
This was an indication that it might be necessary to cut supplies or get hold of more in order to avoid what it called a "gas supply emergency". A spokeswoman stressed that supplies were in place to cope with demand.
But the main opposition Conservatives have obtained figures which they said showed Britain had only eight days of supplies in storage, based on current usage levels.
Meanwhile, the operators of Britain\’s biggest rock salt mine, Winsford in Cheshire, northwest England, said it faced "unprecedented" demand.
"We would obviously like to be able to fulfil every authority\’s needs in full but the reality of the situation at present is that that is simply not possible," the Winsford Salt Union said.
"We are, therefore, working closely with customers and with government agencies to try to prioritise deliveries according to local needs."
German salt company Esco, which supplies across Europe, also said it would prioritise provision for motorways and major roads.