© Getty ImagesSnow!
As the country was plunged into one of its worst winters for decades, the Met Office issued an emergency weather warning for all counties of the UK.

The South, including London and the Home Counties, were expected to bear the brunt of the snowfall with emergency services warning they are already struggling to cope with the increasingly bitter conditions.

Forecasters predicted that more than one foot of snow could fall in less than 24 hours in most southern areas leading to widespread chaos and disruption for millions.

The residents of Hampshire and Wiltshire were expected to be the worst hit, with as much as 16 inches likely to be dumped by the end of tomorrow.

Residents and commuters in London, which ground to a halt last February following heavy falls, were warned to expect a covering of several inches by the morning rush hour.

On the roads drivers were advised not to venture out unless their journey was absolutely essential, as councils warned they could run out of grit if the conditions failed to improve.

© AFP/GETTYA tractor clears snow at Manchester Airport
The Met Office claimed the amount of snow forecast could be the biggest single fall since the notorious winter of 1962-63, when some areas of the country were blighted by snow and ice for more than three months.

During that winter the south saw more than a foot of snow, while blizzards in some parts of Wales led to drifts of over 18 feet.

A Met Office spokesman said they had issued a so-called "flash warning" because of the substantial quantity of snow which was expected to fall across the south in a short period of time.

The spokesman said: "This kind of warning is very rare. It's the level of alert we put out for the floods in the Summer of 2007."

Forecasters have warned of little respite over the next week as freezing temperatures will continue to grip Britain.

Yesterday up to eight inches of snow fell in parts of the country. It brought chaos to schools, businesses and the transport networks.

Scores of rail services and flights were cancelled as temperatures struggled to get above freezing. The overnight temperature on Dartmoor in Devon fell to minus 9 on Monday night.

More than 1,000 schools were closed across Scotland, the north of England and Wales.

Police, fire and ambulance services were preparing to put into place contingency plans in order to maintain their operations through the worst of the weather.

© PAA man helps a car up a snow-covered hill near Wetherby in Yorkshire
In some hard-hit areas however emergency services admitted they were losing the battle against the bad weather.

The Manchester Constabulary issued a plea to the public to only dial 999 where there was a life threatening emergency or a crime was taking place.

And the North West Ambulance Service also declared a major incident due to the weather.

A spokesman for the service said: "We are unlikely to be able to reach patients with minor injuries or symptoms. We are having to stringently prioritise all of our 999 calls and dispatch our resources to life-threatening cases only. We would like to stress the urgency for people to stay indoors unless it is absolutely necessary.

"The driving conditions are extremely hazardous and we would like to ensure that the risk of injury on the roads is reduced as much as possible."

Ambulance services across the south were monitoring the worsening weather situation with some turning to 4x4 all terrain vehicles in order to reach patients.

South Central Ambulance Service which covers Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire was last night contacting staff to ask them if they can stay overnight near their ambulance stations.

In London many ambulances were also fitted with special equipment which provide extra grip for tyres in slippery conditions.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the Government and all the services were doing everything possible to keep the country moving throughout the worsening weather.

© PAResidents try to dig their cars out from under the snow in Allendale, Northumberland
He said: "The weather is taking a turn for the worse. We are doing everything possible to keep disruption to a minimum. The Highways Agency has kept the vast majority of major road networks running. We are in close contact with local authorities and it is a situation we will keep a very close eye on."

There were also fears that gas supplies could begin to run low if the icy conditions continue for sometime as forecasters have predicted.

Figures obtained by the Conservatives suggested under the current levels of usage, supplies would only last for another week.

Major sporting fixtures also fell victim to the weather with both Carling Cup semi final football matches between Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa and Manchester City and Manchester United, postponed.

Elsewhere supermarkets reported a surge in panic-buying as shoppers tied to stockpile food supplies.