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WORLD WAR II played a crucial part in ensuring Wales survived as an independent nation, a leading Welsh historian claims.

Dr Martin Johnes of Swansea University - whose book Wales Since 1939, the first dedicated to the history of post-war Wales, is published today - said the war led to the stark realisation that Wales had its own distinct identity - and that this was suddenly recognised from outside too.

He said: "Because of fast changing communities and ideas of identity, during and after the Second World War, some wondered whether Wales would exist at all by the end of the 20th century."

But he said the outbreak of war led to thousands of evacuees discovering Wales for the first time and to Welsh soldiers fighting alongside English, Scottish, Irish and other nationals. He said: "Welsh people found in big numbers they were different, and others from the outside discovered Wales and the fact it had a strong regional identity.

"The armed forces created an awareness of the diversity of Britain.

"The people of Britain had been fighting not just to defeat Nazism but for their homes and their own traditions too."

Troops, workers, civilians and government departments were moved to avoid falling bombs - and as many as 200,000 people moved to Wales between 1939 and 1941.

Dr Johnes said: "Not only did it highlight an awareness of Wales as a distinct part of the UK, but when soldiers came back they wanted the Wales they had been fighting for to be a better place to live."

Dr Johnes, head of history and classics at Swansea, has compiled five key dates in post-war Welsh history: * 1945 - the end of World War II and the election of a Labour government, which "wed Wales to the British state but also created fears that Welsh identity will be marginalised and overlooked"; * 1965 - the flooding of the Tryweryn valley, which "made many think about what being Welsh meant in the modern world"; * 1966 - the Aberfan disaster, which was "another example of how poorly served Wales was by English rule [and] marked more disillusionment with both Labour and the coal industry"; 1979 - a referendum rejected devolution, which showed that "in times of economic uncertainty and distrust in the Labour party, being Welsh was not primarily a political sentiment"; 1997 - the people of Wales vote for devolution, which means "for the first time in its history,Wales can claim to have a degree of democratic self-government". …