Torrential rain caused severe flooding across many parts of Britain yesterday. Thousands of people were affected as homes, workplaces and schools were evacuated.

Trains were cancelled and motorists were stranded when railway lines and roads were submerged, causing rush-hour chaos.

The worst-affected areas were the Midlands, Yorkshire and Northern Ireland. The Environment Agency issued 42 flood warnings, including three severe ones - the most serious category, which indicates extreme danger to life and property - for Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

The Met Office said that the wet weather would continue into the beginning of next week, with some very heavy and thundery outbreaks likely again today.

A teenage soldier was feared drowned after he tried to cross a swollen river during a training exercise and more than 100 people were trapped in a factory when a river burst its banks.

A search was launched after the soldier, 17, was washed away after being hit by a surge of water as he waded across Risedale Beck on Hipswell Moor, North Yorkshire, with two other recruits.

The three had their arms linked but the force of the water knocked them off their feet near Catterick Garrison. Two were rescued, but the third was still missing last night. Police, a fell rescue team and an RAF helicopter were called in.

Staff at the WH Smith and Sons toolmakers in Minworth, near Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire, were penned in by 6ft of water after the River Tame burst its banks.

Fire crews managed to rescue some of the employees but 42 remained huddled upstairs in the restaurant for much of the day. Jean Owen, one of the trapped workers, said: "The flood started at about 8am and I'd already been in work for 30 minutes. It was scary stuff - lots of us were forced to flee upstairs because there was about six feet of water ringing the factory. Water started to come in from everywhere. I've never seen anything like it. It was like a disaster movie."

Emergency crews throughout the Midlands and Yorkshire were stretched to the limit throughout much of Thursday night and yesterday.

Rail commuters were also brought to a standstill. Rail services in Yorkshire and the Midlands were particularly affected, with the Birmingham to Euston service subject to delays.

Thousands of schoolchildren were sent home after their buildings flooded, including children at Langley Secondary school in Solihull and several schools in Sheffield.

North Yorkshire Police said that two people were pulled out uninjured from a car that was almost completely covered by a landslip on the A59. Police later closed the A1 southbound and one lane northbound, near Catterick, due to severe flooding.

Craig Stenton, 41, described how he waded into a swollen stream in Sheffield and grabbed a teenager who had fallen in. The 14-year-old boy had fallen into a swollen beck in the Chapeltown area of Sheffield, at midday.

He said: "I could see a kid swirling around in the water. I grabbed a clothes prop to try and hook him out but it was no use. I ran further along and saw he had got stuck on a branch. I waded in and dragged him out. He had hit his head on a bridge and had taken in a lot of dirty water but he was OK.

"We sat him down in a garden, wrapped him in blankets and waited for the ambulance to come. I think he was OK, but he has been taken to hospital for a check-up."

One of the areas most heavily affected was Edgbaston, Birmingham, where more than 3.4in (86mm) of rain fell in 24 hours. The average for the entire month is usually 60mm.

Firefighters in the city had to pump water out of 200 homes after the River Tame burst its banks. West Midlands fire service said water levels reached five feet in the Brookvale area of Aston, West Midlands.

Bingley, near Bradford, was deluged with 2.8in of rain in 24 hours. Coleshill in Warwickshire also suffered 1.9in of rain in the same space of time.

In South Yorkshire, two teenagers were taken to hospital with suspected hypothermia after being swept down a dyke near Barnsley.

Police said that the youths were swept hundreds of yards by the water, before coming to rest on a piece of raised ground, where they were rescued by firefighters.

Flooding in the East Riding of Yorkshire forced police out of their Hull headquarters. A spokesman for Humberside Police said that a two square mile area of Hessle, west of Hull, was worst affected.

Helicopter crews helping with the various rescue operations said that weather conditions had hampered their efforts. An RAF spokesman said: "The conditions have just been appalling in the area all day."

The Met Office said that tomorrow would be cloudy with showers or rain in the North, and brighter with a few showers elsewhere. It will be unsettled on Monday and Tuesday with rain, locally heavy, pushing northwards across most parts. Severe weather warnings were issued for today in Wales, northwest England and the West Midlands.

The downpours came on the day that the National Audit Office (NAO) warned that not enough was being done to maintain the country's flood defences.

The NAO said that the Environment Agency failed to meet its target of maintaining 63 per cent of flood defences in peak condition, and that there were large regional differences in defence levels.

The Environment Agency has estimated that it would need an extra £150 million a year to bring all flood defence systems up to peak condition.

Rain check

2000 Severe flooding was reported in Northern England after 80mm (3in) of rain. Gales swept across Northern Scotland with an 84mph gust at Stornoway

1999 Thirty hours of continuous rain fell just north of London

1997 The wettest of the last century. Glastonbury festival was a mudbath, and the Lord's test match, Ascot and Wimbledon were all hit by heavy rainfall; flooding in Bognor Regis, West Sussex

1993 An amazing 140mm (5.5in) of rain fell in Llandudno in North Wales

1975 Snow fell in a number of places with midday temperatures down to 2C

1953 The Queen's coronation was thoroughly wet and there was flooding in the North West. The UK's 30-minute rainfall record was set on June 26 with 80mm (3in) at Eskdalemuir in Scotland

1903 Cold and very wet - it rained continuously for 58.5 hours in London, a UK record