Rooney rose to guide home Leighton Baines' cross four minutes from half-time on a raucous evening, which a Polish contingent in excess of 20,000 at times made it feel like an away day.
It was the Manchester United man's 38th England goal, and his ninth in 10 games, confirming his status as his team's talisman heading into yet another major tournament.
However, after spurning a succession of chances, both before and after Rooney's goal, to evoke memories of that awful night in 1973 when 'the clown' Jan Tomaszewski denied them, it took a captain's intervention from Gerrard two minutes from time to ensure England will take their place on the greatest stage next summer.
Manager Roy Hodgson, who lived every minute in glorious agony, leapt to the air in jubilation, becoming only the sixth Englishman to take his country into a World Cup finals.
Hodgson joins an illustrious list, including Walter Winterbottom, Sir Alf Ramsey, Ron Greenwood, Bobby Robson and Glenn Hoddle, and can now look ahead to December's draw knowing the minimum task for his tenure has been achieved.
If the Football Association thought doubling the Polish allocation to 18,000 would deter visitors from entering areas of the stadium supposed to be reserved for home fans, it was sadly mistaken.
The noise following the national anthems was akin to a match in Warsaw.
Smoke from numerous red flares wafted around the ground at kick-off and every English touch was greeted with loud whistles.
If nothing else, it did sweep away any tension as the home supporters were too busy attempting to match their rivals in the stands to start panicking about the result.
It would not be England, though, if the task was not to be achieved without some degree of pain.
A defence in which the suspended Kyle Walker had been replaced by Chris Smalling lacked cohesion - or vision, for that matter - given the space
Robert Lewandowski was afforded to gallop into as Poland broke from deep inside their own half.
One of Europe's most feared strikers had virtually reached the edge of the box before anyone closed in, too late to stop Lewandowski firing at goal, although Joe Hart saved easily.
If that was a scare, Poland's next opportunity was a heart-stopper.
Adrian Mierzejewski was not picked up by Andros Townsend as he broke over halfway and, when Jakub Blaszczykowski allowed the square pass to run through his legs, Lewandowski arrived, unopposed, to carry it on.
It was to Hodgson's relief the Borussia Dortmund man had been exhausted by his long surge. First he stumbled, then he dragged his shot wide, when virtually the entire stadium expected the ball to be nestling in the net.
On the bench, Hodgson was shown mouthing an expletive confirming his relief.
On his last appearance at this stadium, Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny made the mistake that gifted Birmingham their shock Carling Cup win over Arsenal.
On Tuesday night he was trying to make headlines of a different sort, saving from Townsend, Danny Welbeck twice and Rooney as England poured forward.
In addition, Smalling came agonisingly close to touching home Gerrard's free-kick, Sturridge nearly profited from some kamikaze defending in the Polish box and Townsend curled a shot against the bar that had Carrick raising his arms in celebration.
With Welbeck also lashing wide after tip-toeing over a pile of prone bodies, it began to feel like one of those evenings.
But, as half-time approached, Rooney struck.
The goal was typically English in its simplicity but due credit should be paid to Michael Carrick, for having the vision to pick out Baines with a first-time pass, and the Everton man for the brilliance of his delivery.
Had Gary Cahill nodded Gerrard's corner in at the start of the second half, or Grzegorz Krychowiak toed the ball home when his sliding intervention left Szczesny stranded and helpless, England could have started to breathe.
Instead they were indebted to Hart's bravery as he blocked Lewandowski's delicate effort after he had nipped behind England's tiring defence.
Showing a touch of naivety you maybe would not see from Italy, the hosts pushed on.
Szczesny denied Rooney and Sturridge, before Gerrard, driving into the visitors' box like the leader he so obviously is, chipped over Szczesny to send England into raptures.