An armed boarding steamer (or "armed boarding ship", or "armed boarding vessel") was a merchantman that the British Royal Navy converted to a warship during the First World War. AB steamers or vessels had the role of enforcing wartime blockades by intercepting and boarding foreign vessels. The boarding party would inspect the foreign ship to determine whether to detain the ship and send it into port or permit it to go on its way.
On 28 September 1914 Admiral John Jellicoe, commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet, sent a telegram in which he pointed out that he did not have enough destroyers available to enforce the blockade. Furthermore, the weather was often too severe for the destroyers. Although Jellicoe did not mention it, after the loss on 22 September of the cruisers HMS Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue, he also did not want large warships making themselves sitting targets for submarines by stopping to examine merchant vessels.
The first request was for 12 vessels, all to be capable of 12–14 knots (22–26 km/h; 14–16 mph), be able to carry enough coal for five days at sea, have wireless, and have boats suitable for boarding parties to use. Each armed boarding steamer was to carry two 3-pounder guns (47 mm/L50) and be under the command of an officer from the Royal Navy. These 12 vessels were requisitioned in October and completed by mid to late-November. Other vessels followed.
The Navy found that cross-Channel passenger vessels were particularly suitable because of their large cargo capacity. As experience with the programme increased, the armed boarding vessels received heavier armament. The Royal Navy realized the need for heavier armament after the German auxiliary cruiser SMS Meteor attacked and sank the armed boarding ship HMS Ramsey on 8 August 1915. The navy wanted to arm the boarding ships with some obsolete 14-inch torpedo tubes, and modern 4-inch (100 mm) guns (possibly the BL 4 inch naval gun Mk VII); Meteor had sunk Ramsey using both a torpedo, and gunfire from two 88 mm (3.5-inch) guns.[a]
The Navy pressed the vessels into other roles. Some carried depth charges for anti-submarine duty while escorting convoys. Still others, particularly in the Mediterranean, served as transports. A quarter were lost during active duty in the war; eight sunk by submarines, one by a German auxiliary cruiser, and one by mines. Two went on to serve again in WWII, with one then being lost to bombing.