Rooney converted Leighton Baines’ devilish cross from the left with less than five minutes remaining in the first half. Poland searched for an equaliser but Gerrard’s late goal secured England’s place in the finals.
Townsend hit the crossbar before Rooney broke the deadlock, finding space between the two Polish centre-halves to nod home.
Nerves inside Wembley escalated with fans knowing that a single Poland goal would send England into the play-offs following Ukraine’s 8-0 hammering of San Marino, but Gerrard put the game beyond doubt by latching onto James Milner’s lofted ball to beat the onrushing Szczesny.
The result ensures England a place in the 2014 World Cup finals while Ukraine must now fight it out in a play-off due to be played in November.
Pre-match: Michael Carrick replaces Frank Lampard, partnering captain Steven Gerrard in midfield. Chris Smalling is also given the nod over Manchester United team-mate Phil Jones to fill-in for the suspended Kyle Walker at right-back.
11' - CHANCE: Townsend picks up the ball 25 yards from goal and wriggles away from a number of challenges on the edge of the Poland penalty area before sending a rasping effort towards Szczesny’s goal. The shot is his with venom but it’s too close to the Arsenal stopper who is able to beat it away.
15' - CHANCE: Błaszczykowski cuts in from the left and feeds the ball to Sobota on the left who turns Smalling inside-out in his own penalty area. The Poland winger drills a shot towards goal that looks to have beaten Hart but crashes into the side netting.
22' - CHANCE: Gerrard whips in a delightful ball from the left that is too hot for Szczesny to handle. The keeper stays put as the ball flies across his six-yard box. Smalling gets in front of his man but can’t make contact and the ball flies narrowly wide of the goal.
23' - CHANCE: Lewandowski should score. Poland attack in numbers yet again, and do so very swiftly. Blaszczykowski flies down the right and rolls the ball inside where Mierzejewski allows it to roll through his legs into the path of Lewandowski. The Dortmund man takes one touch to set himself inside the England box but drags his shot wide of the mark.
27' - CROSSBAR: Wonderful, wonderful effort from Townsend. The Spurs man rolls his defender on the right of the Poland box to send a dipping, curling effort past Szczesny and onto the crossbar. So close.
31' - MISS: Unbelievable miss! Baines' corner isn't dealt with and falls to Welbeck SIX yards from goal. Somehow the Man United forward drags a left-footed shot wide of the goal. It was harder to miss than score.
41' - GOAL: ROONEY SCORES!! Baines finds some space down the left and isn’t challenged by Blaszczykowski. The full-back sends a devilish ball into the penalty area which is met by Rooney who glances the ball past Szczesny with a superb header.
60' - CHANCE: Lewandowski is put through on goal and only has Hart to beat. The Man City stopper is at his very best, though, commanding his box and repelling the Dortmund man. Great stop with his right hand.
78' - CHANCE: Sturridge chases a loose ball on the left and keeps it in play. He goes head-to-head with Celeban, showing the defender one way before cutting inside to shoot at goal. It’s hit with real venom but Szczesny palms it over for a corner.
88' - GOAL: England are going through to the World Cup finals!!!! Gerrard sends England to Brazil. Milner finds the Liverpool man with a clever lobbed through ball as Gerrard bears down on goal. The England captain shows great determination to muscle his way past Glik and lift the ball over the onrushing Szczesny.
TALKING POINT: Does Michael Carrick deserve a starting spot in the England midfield? Once again Hodgson was brave in his team selection, opting to go with Carrick over Frank Lampard in the heart of the England midfield. Carrick, in typical fashion, was outstanding during his time on the pitch. He was later replaced by Lampard in what seemed like a hugely unnecessary substitution, but the Manchester United midfielder was very economical with the ball and rarely put a foot wrong.
The 2-0 win extends England's impressive record over Poland. The Three Lions have now faced Poland 19 times, winning of the clashes and losing just the one.
There have been 17 different goal scorers during Roy Hodgson’s reign as England boss so far, with Rooney topping the table with 10 goals.
Rooney now requires just 11 more goals to break Sir Bobby Charlton's England goalscoring record.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Michael Carrick (England): In the only unforced change to the England team, Carrick replaced the ponderous Frank Lampard and immediately looked a far more natural partner for Gerrard. He snapped into tackles early on, adding a real element of calm to the England midfield, and imposed himself on the game with his passing, playing in Baines with a neat ball for the opening goal. Knitted things together excellently and it was a strange decision to take him off.
England: Hart 6, Smalling 5, Cahill 6, Jagielka 6, Baines 8, Gerrard 7, Carrick 8, Townsend 7, Rooney 8, Welbeck 6, Sturridge 6; Subs: Wilshere 6, Lampard 5, Milner N/A,
Poland: Szczesny 6, Celeban 6, Jedrzejczyk 5, Glik 7, Wojtkowiak 6, Krychowiak 6, M Lewandowski 5, Błaszczykowski 7, Mierzejewski 6, Sobota 6, Lewandowski 8; Subs: Zielinski 5, Preszko 6, Klich 6