The summer of 2003 was characterised by exceptionally warm weather in Europe with the average temperature exceeding that of any previous summer over the last 500 years. The seasonal 2003 summer temperature for central Europe was beyond the historical distribution range and could bear a closer resemblance with climate change scenarios for late XXI century. Nevertheless, it was the heatwave that occurred between the 1st and the 15th of August 2003 that had a major impact in excessive mortality rates throughout Europe, with catastrophic amplitude in France. Here we show, on a daily basis, when and where the magnitude and spatial extent of this heatwave episode has surpassed previous historical maxima, and that this episode is associated with an equally maximum blocking pattern over western Europe. Finally we show that surface and low troposphere air temperature anomalies are particularly well associated with the increased mortality rates in France.