The REME Museum has recently accepted the donation of an official report written by DDME (Deputy Director Mechanical Engineering) 34 Indian Corps regarding, among other specifics, the waterproofing of vehicles for Operation Zipper.

Waterproofing is the temporary transformation of a vehicle into amphibious equipment capable of wading through water from landing craft to dry land. This ingenuity was key to the success of a number of operations throughout World War II.

A document with badges of REME and IEME at the top, title "Operation Zipper"

The front cover of the report on Operation Zipper recently accepted by the Museum. Image taken by donor and used with their permission.

Operation Zipper was undertaken in Malaya (now Malaysia), September 1945. The surrender of Japanese forces shortly before the planned operation meant that it was reduced in scale with fewer units involved and met with no resistance. The original objective of this operation was for British forces to capture an airfield and port in the west of Malaya.

The report concludes that of 7299 vehicles used in the final operation, only 28 were lost and unable to be recovered. This level of success is echoed in earlier examples of REME’s involvement in waterproofing since its formation in 1942.

Early Work

Shortly after the Corps’ creation, it was agreed that REME would be responsible for the waterproofing of all vehicles. Waterproofing was a recent introduction to military operations at the time, with some of the earliest examples from the Second World War coinciding with the creation of REME in the latter half of 1942. Waterproofing vehicles had the advantage of facilitating surprise beach landings.

One of the first operations that saw REME’s fundamental involvement in the waterproofing of vehicles was the Sicilian landings of July 1943. Using locally available materials, c 15,600 ‘A’ and ‘B’ vehicles were waterproofed by units in the Middle East, North Africa and Malta. In the desert this involved the re-modification of vehicles already used in the North Africa campaign, often using re-claimed materials from weapons and aircraft.

In the same year, the creation of wading establishments located in the United Kingdom allowed for the testing of waterproofed vehicles prior to their use in action. Instow, Devon was one such establishment that is now represented in the collection of the REME Museum in a group of 1975 paintings by A J Burgess as well as photographs.

A vehicle is half submerged in water, soldiers stand on top of it. Houses and hills in background.

Wading Trials Branch REME, Instow, Devon, 1948-49. 2007.4866.40.

D Day, 1944

The modification of vehicles for the D-Day landings is, perhaps, the most significant example of REME’s involvement in waterproofing during the Second World War.

Displayed in the Museum’s galleries is an example of a Sherman BARV (Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle) used in the D-Day landings. This vehicle was specific to REME. The converted Sherman Tank was capable of operating in water up to 3 metres deep due to the removal of the turret and introduction of a large structure to the hull. It was responsible for recovering others from the water and clearing the path for further landing craft.

Image of an armoured recovery vehicle with tracked wheels, grey colour with square of blue yellow and red horizontal stripes on the front.

Sherman BARV on display at the REME Museum. 1963.578.

The Sherman BARV was eventually replaced by the Centurion BARV in the 1960s, examples of which were used in the Falklands War, 1982.

Scale model of an armoured vehicle on a wooden base board.

Model of a Centurion BARV. E:06.0315.

Operation Zipper

Almost immediately after D-Day in July 1944, plans emerged to waterproof vehicles for tropical conditions. Vehicles capable of wading in water 5 feet deep with a further allowance of 1.5 feet for waves in high temperatures was investigated. Although these plans were in their advanced stages in August 1945, just days before Operation Zipper was due to take place, the surrender of Japan meant that the waterproofing of vehicles for tropical operations was no longer essential. Regardless of this, Operation Zipper went ahead, although not as originally planned.

An iteration of the original plan was undertaken as it was uncertain whether Japanese forces would fully surrender upon arrival in Malaya and preparations such as loading equipment to vessels in India was nearing an end. Operation Zipper had anticipated the involvement of a combined force consisting of four Indian Divisions, a Tank Brigade and numerous Corps and Army Troops. In reality, a smaller operation of two divisions undertook the landings alongside the Tank Brigade and some Corps Troops.

The report recently acquired by the Museum reveals that amphibious vehicles were critical to the final efforts of Operation Zipper from the 9th to the 30th September 1945, although not without some challenges. Despite rigorous planning, there were layers of mud beneath the surface of the water which left some of the first unloaded vehicles unable to move. Although only losing 28 vehicles, 824 had to be recovered from the sea typically due to difficulties experienced by those driving and not the waterproofing itself. Of those 824, 301 were repaired following sea immersion.

Ultimately, the report concludes that despite early challenges and with improvisation, ‘recovery and off loading of vehicles proceeded very satisfactorily’.

Laura Stewart, Assistant Curator

This article was published in The Craftsman on 1 September 2022.