03/02/2018 01:47 EST | Updated 03/02/2018 02:00 EST

UK army deployed to get doctors to work in severe weather

LONDON — Britain's military was deployed to central and western England on Friday to help get hospital employees to work and to assist police in rescuing people from snowbound vehicles as unusually cold weather gripped the United Kingdom.

The big freeze caused travel chaos throughout the country with hundreds of flights cancelled at Heathrow Arport, Europe's largest air hub. Trains broke down, stranding some passengers in frosty conditions for hours.

"This is particularly unusual weather," Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said. "It's something that happens very rarely in this country."

One police force in Scotland tweeted a picture of a patrol car beside a snowdrift almost as high as the vehicle to show drivers why they should stay home. "PLEASE AVOID THIS AREA," the post said.

The army sent 20 troops and 10 four-wheel drive vehicles to Shropshire, the county south of Liverpool, and the Royal Marines sent resources to Devon and Cornwall on the southwest coast after police asked for help. More troops were at the ready.

"There are three U.K. standby battalions held at high readiness to respond to U.K. contingencies and emergencies, including support to local authorities," the Ministry of Defence said in a statement. "We have the right people with the right training to respond to a range of contingencies."

One train travelling from London's Waterloo Station to Weymouth ground to a halt outside New Milton, stranding motorists for hours. Thousands of homes are without electricity as temperatures remain below freezing, with bitter winds.

Heathrow Airport tweeted Friday that it was working with airlines to consolidate the flight schedule "to provide more certainty around departing flights," as extreme winter conditions were expected across the U.K. and Europe. More than 350 flights were cancelled. Gatwick, London City, Edinburgh and Glasgow airports also reported cancellations.

Other European airports closed down entirely. Authorities at Geneva's airport have suspended air traffic for a second straight day amid heavy snowfall.

The airport says on its website that departing and arriving flights have been barred until further notice "because of the prevailing weather conditions." It advised passengers to contact their airlines to find out if their flights were still scheduled for departure.

Around 340 flights were cancelled at Ireland's Dublin Airport, which posted images of swirling snow together with the hashtag "BeastFromTheEast." It doesn't plan to open until Saturday.

Up to a meter (three feet) of snow was reported on the high ground in eastern Ireland, and travellers were stranded south and west of the capital.

"Large amounts of snow on many roads and conditions vary significantly," police in Ireland said. "Cars abandoned on many roads due to snow."

In central England, volunteers brought hot drinks and blankets to stranded drivers as they waited for help. Eleanor Kelly, 19, said those stranded in the Milnrow suburb of Rochdale included a father with a baby and toddler in his car.

"We've been trying to get to as many people as we can in about a mile radius from where we can get to the carriageway," she said.

Trains also reported disruptions. One commuter, Philip Brown, endured more than 15 hours on a train travelling from London Waterloo to Bournemouth, Dorset. The average time for the journey is about two hours.

"I didn't have any food or water. There were no buffet facilities on board. The train lost power and we lost heating and lights," said Brown, 49. "I couldn't tell you how cold it was, but it was cold enough to prevent you from sleeping. People were taking it in their stride although one guy was quite agitated. People were wrapping jumpers round their legs trying to keep warm."


Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.