LONDON (AFP) - Britain deployed Royal Marines on Thursday to help with devastating floods after what officials said was likely the worst spell of winter rainfall for 250 years.
Around 40 marines were helping reinforce flood defences near Taunton in Somerset in southwest England, parts of which have been under water for a month.
Local police said the marines would put out nearly 1,000 sandbags along a 1-2 kilometre stretch of wall near the River Tone, which has been swelled by heavy rain - more of which was expected overnight.
Prime Minister David Cameron's government has faced criticism for its handling of a crisis that has left swathes of the country under water, with a key railway line washed away.
Several people had to be rescued from deluged homes on Thursday. More storms are expected this weekend.
Across the English Channel, France's western tip jutting out into the Atlantic was placed on alert for flooding as high tides wreaked havoc.
Britain's Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said the government would make an extra 30 million pounds (S$62.1 million) available for emergency repairs, on top of 100 million pounds announced by Mr Cameron on Wednesday.
Pickles said the winter was the wettest since King George III was on the throne, from 1760-1820, and the flood victims had "literally been through hell and high water".
The Meterological Office confirmed in a statement that for southern England, "regional statistics suggest that this is one of, if not the most, exceptional periods of winter rainfall in at least 248 years".
Parts of the region received five months of rainfall between December 12 and January 31.
The rainy winter has set records tumbling, being the wettest combined period for December and January across the United Kingdom since 1910, the Met Office said.
It was also the windiest December since 1969, based on the occurrence of winds over 111 kilometres per hour (69 miles per hour).
For England alone it was the wettest December to January since 1876-1877 and the second wettest since rainfall records began in 1766.
"Nothing happened for so long"
Firefighters in Somerset and the neighbouring county of Devon rescued 14 people from homes and stranded vehicles late Wednesday and early Thursday.
Rescuers in inflatable boats reached four adults and three children from one house after a river burst its banks in Stoke St Gregory, a village that Prince Charles visited on Tuesday, a fire brigade spokesman said.
The heir to the throne said on his trip that the "tragedy is that nothing happened for so long".
Cameron personally took charge of the government's response on Wednesday after facing a growing tide of criticism for being too slow to aid stricken communities.
But the damage has continued, with the main train service connecting Devon and the county of Cornwall with the rest of Britain suspended after part of the sea wall under the coastal railway line collapsed.
Meanwhile in France, Finestere, a department of coastal Brittany, was placed on red flooding alert and braced for two of its rivers, the Morlaix and the Laita, to burst their banks as a result of heavy rain forecast for Thursday.
The highest-level warning was issued by Meteo-France shortly after the agency placed 29 departments from Brittany to the Paris region on a second-tier orange alert.
Recent days have seen huge waves, gale-force winds and torrential rains combine to batter sea defences from the Basque country on France's border with Spain.
The storms sent a Spanish cargo ship crashing into a sea wall at the French port of Bayonne on Wednesday, splitting it clean in two.
In Spain, roofs were torn off and planes overturned as 130km/h winds and eight-metre waves battered the northern coast, causing millions of euros worth of damage.