HUNDREDS of military personnel were drafted in to help prevent floodwater from engulfing 300 homes in Romsey yesterday.

A massive multi-agency operation was launched amid fears that a raised riverbank could collapse, allowing the Test to swamp large areas of the town.

About 300 soldiers and sailors were involved in a race against time to protect 300 homes using 40,000 sandbags.

And the Environment Agency was devising a plan to divert the River Test away from the town centre via a floodplain west of the town.

Families living in Mill Lane and other high-risk areas could only watch and worry as water levels in the town continued to rise.

Last night the Environment Agency warned that more heavy rain today could deepen the flooding crisis engulfing the south.

 Mayor of Romsey, Ian Richards, said: “Everything is being done to protect the properties most at risk.”

Asked if he thought the scheme would work he added: “I certainly hope so. It’s the best chance we’ve got.”

The River Test’s current flow rate is 55 tonnes of water per second – enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in just 20 seconds. But the Test through Romsey has the capacity to take only 50 tonnes per second.

Mike O’Neill, the Environment Agency’s operations manager for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight said: “This is an unprecedented operation in Hampshire to deal with an unprecedented situation.

“‘We’re doing this because there’s concern that a 6ft raised river bank at Fish Lake, could be eroded and release river water into Romsey.”

Mr O’Neill confirmed that the Agency was also planning to channel excess water from the Test into a flood plain.

The plan is to redirect the water back into the river further downstream.

Soldiers and sailors deploying the sandbags were joined by firefighters and staff from Test Valley Borough Council.

The operation, due to continue today, was praised by Romsey and Southampton North MP Caroline Nokes.

She said: “I have seen at first hand how hard all the agencies involved have been working to try to contain the flooding problems in Romsey.

“Wherever you go you see fire service, Environment Agency, Hampshire County Council and Test Valley Borough Council workers keeping sandbags in place and pumps working.

“I’d like to express my thanks to all who have worked day and night for ten days to keep as many properties as possible in Romsey safe from the water.”

Last night the Environment Agency issued an urgent warning ahead of the heavy rain forecast for today.

A spokesman said: “We advise communities to remain vigilant as river levels remain high across the region, bringing a continued risk of flooding across the south east.

“Groundwater flooding also remains a concern as catchments are saturated following the heavy rainfall over the last few weeks.

“We are advising people not to remove sandbag defences but to leave them in place and reinforce them if needed.

“We strongly urge the public not to walk or drive through flood water and we are advising people to stay away from coastal paths and promenades as these could be highly dangerous due to large waves.

“People are advised to avoid walking or driving through flood water – six inches can knock you off your feet, and just a foot of flowing water can move a car.

“Care should be taken when crossing culverts or bridges as they are dangerous when flooded.”