Flights were cancelled, travellers stranded and motorists stuck in kilometres-long traffic jams Saturday as what British newspapers are calling the Big Freeze brought heavy snow and icy temperatures across the U.K. and much of northern Europe.

Officials have issued heavy snow warnings across Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and parts of England, calling for up to 25 centimetres. "Very heavy" snow warnings were put out for central and southern England, including the greater London area.

Temperatures fell below -17 Celsius in some parts of England, and northern Scotland recorded lows down to -20 C.

The cold and snow threw Christmas travel plans into chaos for more than a million people as airports closed across Europe, airlines cancelled flights, trains were delayed and roads clogged by the blast of wintry weather.

The snow forced Air Canada to cancel flights to London, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

London's Gatwick airport temporarily closed its runway due to snow, despite 47 snow plows and 150 staff working flat out to keep the runway clear. It re-opened later in the day.

And British Airways suspended all flights from London's Heathrow airport and warned of severe disruptions at all London airports.

There were also delays and disruptions at Exeter, London City, Aberdeen, Bristol and Cardiff airports.

In a statement, Heathrow officials said more snow was expected and that staff were "planning for the worst."

Airports in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Denmark also reported cancellations or delays.

Paris got only a light coat of snow, but more was predicted and aviation authorities cancelled some flights from the city's Charles de Gaulle airport.

Flights were also cancelled in northeastern France, where snow already blanketed the ground, and services were also cancelled at the airports in the cities of Nantes and Rennes.

Hundreds of flights were cancelled at Frankfurt airport, Germany's biggest, a spokesperson for airport operator Fraport said. He said that was largely to do with disruption to schedules caused by problems elsewhere in Europe, while all runways at Frankfurt itself were clear.

In Italy, hundreds of cars and trucks were stuck on the Autostrada of the Sun -- the country's main north-south highway -- in a massive traffic jam nearly 40 kilometres long.

The snow also stranded hundreds of motorists on the M6 highway, a major route in northwestern England.

One commuter, stranded on the M6 for five hours, told BBC Radio: "It is absolute mayhem."

Problems were reported on three other major highways and police were telling the public not to travel unless absolutely necessary.

Darron Burness, of Britain's Automobile Association, said road conditions were treacherous. "One of the biggest problems is that large amounts of snow are falling very quickly on to frozen surfaces, making driving hazardous," he said.

Icy or snowbound roads caused staffing problems at several hospitals in Wales and ambulance services in northwest England warned of delays reaching even emergency patients.

And health officials issued an urgent appeal for blood donors, particularly those with O negative blood type, saying stocks were running low.

The weather even caused the cancellation of several games in England's Premier League because conditions were too hazardous for fans to attend matches across England.

The sub-zero temperatures are expected to last until the New Year.

With files from The Associated Press