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HE EXPERIENCED some of the Second World War's most important moments, and never forgot what he lived through.

Ernie Spacagna was Southampton's oldest surviving D-Day veteran, one of Monty's “Desert Rats” and helped to liberate prisoners from the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.

Today his family have led tributes to the “gentle and popular” veteran who embodied the spirit of the thousands of servicemen and women who fought and beat Hitler, who has died aged 99.

Ernie had been a hairdresser in New Road before he was called up during the conflict against the Nazis.

As a Royal Army Service Corps driver, he served as one of the famous “Desert Rats” with Field Marshal Montgomery in North Africa, taking part in the battle of El Alamein in 1942.

Then, on June 6, 1944 at the age of 29 he was one of thousands of Allied troops to land in Normandy on D-Day.

He was landed in his Dodge Tipper truck on Sword Beach by an American boat and greeted by the sight of hundreds of dead bodies.

He saw friends severely injured or killed as the Allies fought to gain ground on the beach, but took his Sergeant Major's advice to “put his foot down” and managed to make it across the beach unscathed to unload the shells he was carrying.

As he recalled afterwards, “It was bad. But I had to keep driving.”

Following D-Day he worked with his unit to rebuild bombed-out roads, towns and villages in France, before he witnessed the worst of the Nazis' atrocities when he helped to liberate prisoners from concentration camps in Germany.

After the war he returned to Southampton to rebuild his business, which had been destroyed by German bombing, in Park Road, Freemantle.

There, he cut the hair of stars such as 50s rock n' roll idol Tommy Steele, actor George Sewell and Saints legends Sir Alf Ramsey, Terry Paine and Ted Bates.

He was also known for his exploits with the accordion, once playing a busking marathon to raise money for a disaster fund set up by the Royal British Legion after the death of ten members in a coach crash in 1995.

And for more than 30 years he was an integral part of the Legion in Southampton, becoming President of the Legion club in Eastgate Street.

He was a familiar sight at Southampton's annual remembrance services at the Cenotaph, where he would carry the Legion's flag and give the exhortation on behalf of the organisation.

Last year he was represented by his son Mario at the Cenotaph due to his frailties, but he had still hoped to attend this year's service.

Ernie died, peacefully and surrounded by family members, at Northlands Nursing Home in Southampton on Saturday (April 26).

Speaking on behalf of the family, 71-year-old Mario said: “He was a gentle, popular man who had a wonderful life and who left everyone who knew him with some warm memories.”

Ken Whittington, chairman of Ernie's Legion club, said: “He was an outstanding man. He was dedicated to the Legion.”

Itchen MP John Denham said: “For many people he was Southampton's Remembrance Sunday, carrying the banner with pride and all his strength.

And former city council leader Royston Smith said: “I remember him being at almost every occasion to remember our servicemen, both those that died and those that survived.

“He was the epitome of all that is good in our serving men and women and I was honoured to have met him on numerous occasions.”

Ernie's funeral will take place at St Joseph's Church in Bugle Street, Southampton at noon on May 23 and all are welcome.

To watch video footage of Ernie talking about his wartime experiences, log on to dailyecho.co.uk