There have been three different BARVs in British service since their first introduction during World War II.
The original BARV was a Sherman M4A2 tank which had been waterproofed and had the turret replaced by a tall armoured superstructure. Around 60 were deployed on the invasion beaches during the Battle of Normandy. Able to operate in 9-foot (2.7 metre) deep water, the BARV was used to remove vehicles that had become broken-down or swamped in the surf and were blocking access to the beaches. They were also used to re-float small landing craft that had become stuck on the beach. Unusually for a tank, the crew included a diver whose job was to attach towing chains to stuck vehicles.
The vehicles were developed and operated by the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. The Sherman M4A2 model was chosen as a basis for the BARV as it was thought that the Sherman's welded hull would make easier to waterproof than other tanks. The M4A2, unlike other Sherman models, was powered by a diesel engine and it was believed this would be less affected by the sudden temperature changes caused by the tank repeatedly plunging into cold water.
A few Sherman BARV's continued to be used until 1963, when they were replaced by a vehicle based on the Centurion tank.
The Centurion BARV was basically a Centurion body with built up sides to accommodate wading in water up to 11 feet. The design was functional yet crude with sloped armour built above the tank shell. The tracks for the BARV were reversed so they had better grip biting in reverse. The Centurion tank used the Rolls Royce Meteor engine a 27,000cc petrol power plant which was derived from the Merlin engine used in aircraft. There were many occasions when the BARV would break down or get stuck. In 1981 the BARV from Fearless was to be lost at sea off Browndown beach to end up fully submerged. The following year both BARVS would see service during the Falklands War, being the largest land vehicles ashore, with the BARV from Fearless breaking its drive chain whilst working Blue Beach and spending most of the war not turning a cog.
All the Centurion derived BARV's have now left service and have been sold to collectors and museums around the world.
Currently, four Hippos are in service, one each on HMS Albion and Bulwark, with two based at the Royal Marines Testing and Training Centre. The vehicle is reportedly well liked by its users, but its lack of commonality with the other armoured vehicles used by the UK has caused spares support problems, exacerbated by the poor nature of the Initial Spares Support package procured from Alvis Moelv by the UK's Defence Procurement Agency. This area is being tackled by the MoD's Defence Logistics Organisation.
The Netherlands Marine Corps operates two similar Dutch Leopard 1V-based BARV vehicles known as Hercules and Samson, which operate out of the Royal Netherlands Navy assault ships of the Rotterdam class. The vehicles have a similar specification but a different cabin appearance. They too replaced Centurion BARVs.
Aeroventure in Doncaster now has a Centurion BARV on display as part of its Falklands War Collection Aeroventure / South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum BARV on display in Doncaster UK This was one of the BARV's that supported the landings at San Carlos from HMS Fearless.