The crazy-but-true story of a WWII fighter pilot who said his artificial legs saved his life

Fighter pilot Douglas Bader lifts his artificial leg to get into a Spitfire fighter ready to lead a flight over London in 1945, commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

(CNN)This could be one of the most bizarre "Jeopardy!" clues ever:

Category: British heroes
Clue: World War II fighter ace who once had his prosthetic legs stolen by a young Richard Branson
    Answer: "Who is Douglas Bader?"
      Branson, founder of the Virgin Group of companies, revealed this mischievous interaction with Bader in a podcast honoring the war hero for the Royal Air Force Museum. The billionaire business mogul met Bader as a child when the famous pilot visited Branson's aunt, a close friend of his, years after World War II.
        "I can always remember this very strong two-armed man dragging himself across the lawn after me to grab me and grab his legs back," Branson recounted in the podcast. "(He was) somebody that all of us young people after the war looked up to and respected, and was a great hero of mine."
        British fighter pilot Douglas Bader pictured on his plane in October 1940.
        Bader had his legs amputated after a flying accident in late 1931. Already an RAF aerobatics pilot, he crashed his Bristol Bulldog biplane while performing a low-flying stunt, reportedly on dare from a colleague.
          Because of his injuries, his right leg was amputated almost immediately, and the left a few days later, according to the RAF Museum website.
          His log book, written that day, December 14, 1931, described the crash with two terse phrases, "Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show." He was 21 years old.
          Though he almost died in the days after the crash, the young pilot's resilience and perseverance were soon on display.
          He asked for and was soon fitted with a pair of artificial legs.
          The prosthetics were made of metal, tin in this case. Bader's 1956 biopic, "Reach for the Sky," depicts his single-mindedness to function on his new limbs, pushing past the pain they gave him, putting extra therapy sessions with doctors.
          Bader was up and about on his tin legs just six months after the horrific crash, driving a car and trying to dance.
          He also showed he could capably fly an airplane again, but an RAF medical board ruled he was not fit for service as a pilot, according to the museum's website.
          Bader took a job with the Asiatic Petroleum Company, which would later become Shell Oil, working in the aviation department.
          But he always needed to push himself, and soon discovered golf as a way he could do so.
          "Reach for the Sky" depicts him taking up the game, first swinging and missing and collapsing on the tee box. But he'd go on to become a four-handicap golfer. Consider that the average golf handicap these days is around 15 -- and the lower the number, the better the player -- you can see how good Bader got.

          A yearning for war

          Golf was no substitute for flying, however. As the clouds of war in Europe gathered in 1939, Bader petitioned to get back into the RAF and the cockpit of a fighter plane.
          Jill Lewis, Bader's sister-in-law, said that the pilot was actually eager for war.
          "He was very excited, indeed. He was the only person in our household who was absolutely longing for it to come because he said, 'They'll have to have me now,'" she told interviewers for the 1996 TV documentary "Secret Lives: Douglas Bader."
          Bader was right. On September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. Five months later, Bader was flying the iconic Supermarine Spitfire fighter, according to the RAF Museum.
          Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, front center fourth from right,  stands beside his Hawker Hurricane Mk1 with the men of Royal Air Force No. 242 Squadron during the Battle of Britain in early September 1940 at RAF Duxford near Cambridge, England.
          He scored his first combat victory in early June, shooting down a German plane over France.
          In a few short weeks, he was given command of a squadron, the 242, a group of mostly Canadians who had been deployed to France before it was overrun by the Nazi armies. The ranks of the Canadian squadron were in disarray after their hurried retreat back to Britain, according to a history written for the Royal Canadian Air Force.
          When the 242 squadron arrived back in Britain, its commanding officer at the time didn't even report in to RAF leaders. "No. 242 was in bad odour," wrote the report's author, Hugh Halliday.
          But getting the 242 back in action was the perfect assignment for Bader, and his relentless drive to be the best.
          "Bader immediately transformed his unit, concentrating on improving his pilots' flying, teamwork and confidence," the RAF Museum says.
          "Reach for the Sky" shows Bader strong-arming, cajoling, and calling in favors to get the 242 the equipment it needed and the combat he craved.
          On a 1982 TV show saluting Bader, "This is Your Life," ground crew member Tubby Mays recalled Bader's drive and fearlessness.
          Bader's Hawker Hurricane fighter had taken hits in the cockpit and a round had actually gone through his flight suit, destroying his chewing gum. But the pilot was eager to get back into action, Mays said.
          "All he wanted to do was refuel, rearm, replenish chewing gum and up spirits away," Mays said.
          That kind of persistence paid off for Bader and the 242.

          Combat successes

          "The squadron's first major success came on 30 August when they claimed 12 enemy aircraft, of which Bader shot down two," the RAF Museum says.
          In a letter dated September 22, pilot William McKnight notes the 242's success.
          Hawker Hurricanes of RAF Fighter Command, flying in formation during the Battle of Britain in 1940.
          "The squadron as a whole won itself one of the best reputations in the air force. We're among the top three high scoring squadrons in the service now and are considered one of the top five real crack squadrons," McKnight wrote.
          McKnight's letter came in the middle of the historic Battle of Britain, in which the RAF defeated the German air force and made Adolf Hitler's plans to invade Britain unrealistic without control of the skies. Bader was considered one of the battle's heroes.
          "By the end of 1940 Bader's squadron had shot down 67 enemy aircraft, for the loss of only five pilots killed in action."
          Bader had also formulated the "Big Wing" formation theory during this time in which multiple squadrons take off, form up and attack the Germans as one unit.
          A Hawker Hurricane, left, and  Spitfire, right, are seen over England in April 2020.
          The idea had Bader butting heads with others officers in RAF Fighter Command, and remains controversial among military historians to this day, but in battle, it led to substantial RAF victories and helped cement Bader's newly found status as a national hero.
          By the spring of 1941, the RAF was on the offensive in the air war, sending formations of bombers on daylight missions over Europe, with Bader and the fighter planes flying along, ready to pounce on German fighters that came up to challenge the bombers.
          On August 8, 1941, Bader was downed over France on one of these missions. Original battle reports said he collided with a German plane, but more recent investigations say he may have been downed by friendly fire.
          What is not in dispute is that he bailed out, and his artificial legs may have saved his life.
          That's because his right leg had become trapped in his Spitfire fighter after it was hit.
          The RAF Museum gives Bader's deadpan account:
          "My right leg was no longer with me... the leather belt which attached it to my body had broken under the strain, and the leg, the Spitfire and I had all parted company."
          On the ground, the legless pilot fell into the hands of the Germans.

          A pain of a POW

          Bader's war in the air was over. Now a captive of his enemies on the ground, the stubborn pilot proved to be all they could handle.
          They recovered Bader's right artificial leg from the wreckage of his Spitfire, repaired it and returned it to him in a POW hospital in occupied France, according to the RAF Museum.
          A Spitfire fighter flies over France during D-Day commemorations in 2014.
          This was a mistake by the Germans.
          Bader quickly concocted an escape attempt, tying bedsheets together to climb down from a hospital window and fleeing into a nearby village with the help of the French resistance.
          But the British pilot was a big capture for the Germans, and they hunted him down on the premises of a local family who had given him shelter and helped conceal him.
          "Reach for the Sky" depicts the capture, with Bader telling the Germans that the family had nothing to do with his escape and they should not suffer any consequences. Not surprisingly, it didn't work that way and the French who helped Bader were imprisoned.
          They would later provide the most emotional moment of the 1982 "This is Your Life" show, when the woman of that French house delivered a salute to the English pilot, leaving Bader misty-eyed.
          Despite the gravity of his situation, there were moments from Bader's time in German hands that brought laughs.