German soldiers advancing in high Grass, during Operation Barbarossa.
In the two years leading up to the invasion, the two countries signed political and economic pacts for strategic purposes. Nevertheless, the German High Command began planning an invasion of the Soviet Union in July 1940 (under the codename Operation Otto), which Adolf Hitler authorized on 18 December 1940. Over the course of the operation, about four million Axis personnel invaded the western Soviet Union along a 2,900-kilometer (1,800 mi) front, the largest invasion force in the history of warfare. In addition to troops, the Wehrmacht employed some 600,000 motor vehicles and between 600,000 and 700,000 horses (used for summertime transit, but never in combat). The offensive marked an escalation of the war, both geographically and in the formation of the Allied coalition.
Operationally, the German forces achieved major victories and occupied some of the most important economic areas of the Soviet Union, mainly in Ukraine, and inflicted, as well as sustained, heavy casualties. Despite their successes, the German offensive stalled in the Battle of Moscow and was subsequently pushed back by the Soviet winter counteroffensive. The Red Army repelled the Wehrmacht's strongest blows and forced the unprepared Germans into a war of attrition. The Wehrmacht would never again mount a simultaneous offensive along the entire strategic Soviet–Axis front. The failure of the operation drove Hitler to demand further operations of increasingly limited scope inside the Soviet Union, such as Case Blue and Operation Citadel – all of which eventually failed.
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