IT struck without warning, bringing death and destruction to countless communities battered by ferocious winds gusting up to 115mph.

The worst storm for almost 300 years hit in the middle of the night, changing the face of the south and taking even forecasters by surprise.

And today experts have warned that Britain should brace itself for even more severe weather.

Today 25 years ago families woke to find roofs ripped off houses, cars crushed by collapsed buildings and roads blocked by fallen trees.

Public transport came to a standstill and police warned householders not to leave their homes unless it was absolutely necessary.

The Great Storm will always be associated with TV weatherman Michael Fish, who only hours earlier had dismissed suggestions that Britain was about to experience a hurricane.

Technically he was right but across the country 18 lives were lost, hundreds of people were injured and damage totalled at least £1 billion.

Hampshire and neighbouring counties bore the brunt of the onslaught. In Christchurch two firefighters were killed when a giant tree landed on their appliance as they returned from an emergency call.

Another body was found in a Ford Capri car crushed by a fallen tree near Petersfield.

On the Isle of Wight sightseers flocked to see the remains of the 1,200ft Shanklin Pier, which had been reduced to driftwood by mountainous waves.

One the worst-hit areas of Southampton was Lordshill, where a tennis dome was blown away at the height of the storm.

Metal bolts securing doors at the Ritz Cinema in Gosport were snapped by the force of the wind.

Upstairs the bar looked like the aftermath an explosion. Seafront flats at nearby Lee-on-the-Solent were also wrecked, with broken glass flying around like shrapnel.

Luckily the worst winds occurred in the early hours. Had they struck during the day when people were out and about the death toll would have been far higher.

Despite the damage to buildings the greatest impact was on plants and wildlife.

In Hampshire alone 500,000 trees were lost including many valuable specimens in Exbury Gardens and other parts of the New Forest. The Royal Victoria Country Park at Netley also suffered a terrible beating.

The most expensive weatherrelated event in history began in the Bay of Biscay when warm air from Africa collided with cold air from the Arctic, creating a deep depression that suddenly headed for the UK. The Met Office denies that the Great Storm was caused by climate change, claiming it was the type of freak event that tends to occur every two centuries.But scientists say global warming is set to result in even more severe storms around the world.

Earlier this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast stronger tropical cyclones and other weather related mayhem.

Stanford University climate scientist Chris Field, one of the report’s authors, said: “There is disaster risk almost everywhere.”

In Britain one of the main dangers is flooding, particularly on the south and east coasts.

The Government already spends an annual £800 million on flood defences but the country still suffers an average of £1.4 billion in flood damage every year.

More than two million homes are at risk and the situation can only get worse, according to the experts.

The Foresight Future Flooding report, a study commissioned by the Department of Trade and Industry in 2006, warned that damages could rise to £2.7 billion a year by 2080 if the worst predictions come true.