Troubled Rooney on target as England triumph
Substitutes Adam Johnson and Darren Bent also found the net after Stephen Lichtsteiner had been sent off, to ensure Xherdan Shaqiri's thunderbolt was of no real value.
But Rooney will hog the headlines, just as he has done since Sunday, when the allegations over his private life were first made.
The Manchester United star had reassured manager Fabio Capello he would be fully focused on the match, so the Italian started with the 24-year-old up front.
And, just as ordered, after 12 months and 11 games without a goal for his country, Rooney was in the right place to apply the neat finish to Glen Johnson's cut-back.
The celebration was not extensive, especially as Theo Walcott lay injured.
But inside there must have been a sense of relief and justification at his decision to remain with the Three Lions when it had been claimed by some that he should have gone back to the north-west.
As it was, by the time Rooney departed with 11 minutes left, Capello's side were still not safe – victory only assured when Bent fired home his first England goal two minutes from time.
Against opponents good enough to beat Spain at the World Cup, Capello decided the old Everton partnership of Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott would provide him with his central defensive pairing.
Yet such was England's dominance that over half an hour had passed before their hosts created a chance.
If there was something vaguely predictable that Rooney should choose this night to end his long goal drought, the sight of Defoe wasting a trio of belting opportunities before the break was a total surprise.
Defoe, hat-trick hero against Bulgaria at Wembley on Friday, first failed to control a looping Steven Gerrard cross when Switzerland had played a diabolical offside trap that left the Tottenham man totally on his own inside the area.
Then a smart piece of skill from Johnson took him to the by-line. The cut-back was precise. Inexplicably, Defoe failed to make a decent connection and bounced his effort over.
In fairness to Defoe, the third chance was all his own making and Diego Benaglio was the villain of the piece, beating away the shot after England's lone orthodox frontman had wriggled free of three close attendants inside the Swiss box.
David Degen did eventually fire an angled effort over as the home side roused themselves but it was the kind of efficient, effective eye-catching English performance that made you wonder how and why what happened in South Africa took place.
The loss of Walcott with what could turn out to be a broken ankle sustained in an accidental collision with Steve von Bergen as Rooney was hitting the net will bring a groan from Arsene Wenger.
For Johnson it was the opening he has been craving.
One of six City players to finish the game, the winger whistled a long-range effort over and was a menacing presence for the Switzerland defence every time he collected possession.
The England wobble Capello must have feared arrived just before the hour.
Two dropped crosses by Joe Hart and a run by Alexander Frei which caused English hearts to miss a beat, before Gerrard booted clear, brought nervousness that the dismissal of Lichtsteiner for chopping down James Milner should really have eased.
That Johnson soon skipped round Benaglio to slot home a second, which the Swiss seemed to think should have been ruled out because Defoe was lying in agony with an injury that forced him off, only added to a belief that the job was done.
Shaqiri shook England out of their comfort zone with a
30-yard thunderbolt but, after Wright-Phillips had failed to provide Bent with a tap-in, the Sunderland man finally got his long-awaited England goal when he drove home at the death.
Switzerland: Benaglio, Lichtsteiner, Grichting, Von Bergen, Ziegler, Margairaz (Shaqiri 46), Inler, Schwegler (Costanzo 83), Degen (Streller 64), Derdiyok, Frei. Unused substitutes: Wolfli, Affolter, Padalino, Fernandes.
England: Hart, Glen Johnson, Jagielka, Lescott, Ashley Cole, Walcott (Adam Johnson 13), Gerrard, Barry, Milner, Defoe (Bent 70), Rooney (Wright-Phillips 79). Unused substitutes: Foster, Gibbs, Cahill, Carrick.
Referee: N Rizzoli (Italy).