South Africa dashed England's World Cup dreams as a late Handre Pollard penalty snatched a 16-15 victory for the Springboks in an absorbing contest at the Stade de France.
England had led from the third minute after Owen Farrell had opened the scoring, but their hearts were broken by Polland's penalty on 78 minutes.
Steve Borthwick's men were 12-6 in front at the break thanks to the boot of the England captain - with Manie Libbok and Pollard replying for the world champions - and Farrell stretched his side's lead with a stunning drop-goal on 53 minutes.
However, the Boks were not to be denied as the power they brought off the bench turned the tide. RG Snyman sparked them into life with the only try of the semi-final before Pollard landed the late hammer blow to set up a final with New Zealand next Saturday.
"We're all disappointed," said England head coach Borthwick. "We've fallen short. We came very close to doing it. In adversity, there's usually a seed of something that will grow and be brilliant in the future. We'll make sure we grab that and it makes us stronger."
Following last week's quarter-final win over Fiji, Borthwick said his players had been written off before the tournament had even begun.
Now, there is a full stop on England's World Cup journey (aside from the bronze final v Argentina next Friday) but for so long, it didn't look like that would be the case as they lifted their performance to heights we had yet to witness during Borthwick's tenure.
When going to bed last night, England would've dreamt about the first 40 they produced in this semi-final. A solid start with the boot from the excellent Alex Mitchell - and a clear tactic to gain early aerial dominance - yielded a penalty after South Africa were pinged at the breakdown.
Farrell opened his account for the evening and England continued to get themselves on top with Maro Itoje stealing an early Boks line-out. Mitchell was on the money again as a clever kick towards Elliot Daly's airspace resulted in the Northampton Saints scrum-half lifting another kick over the South African defence to gain valuable territory.
The Boks line-out then wasn't straight and from the scrum, a dynamic carry from Ben Earl set the platform for another England penalty which Farrell landed for 6-0.
The world champions needed a shot in the arm and they were gifted an opportunity when England strayed offside from their own clearance. The Springboks opted for the posts rather than the corner, but England's strong start continued as they made a mess of South Africa's driving maul.
With tempers boiling over in the aftermath, you could feel the belief coursing through the England players - as well as their fans - as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot reverberated around the Stade de France.
The Boks did get another opportunity, though, and after England were marched back 10 metres following some backchat from Farrell, Libbock got South Africa up and running.
However, England were straight back at it with an enticing kick from Farrell, hunted down by Daly which caused Damian Willemse to throw a loose pass. Courtney Lawes gobbled it up and with the Boks pinged for not rolling away, England restored their six-point advantage.
While Farrell had made a tidy start, the same couldn't be said for his opposite number Libbock who was hooked after 31 minutes for Pollard. The Leicester Tigers fly-half, who hadn't even been picked in South Africa's original World Cup squad, instantly notched three points as England were penalised for being offside.
But Borthwick's troops had the final say of an engrossing first period as an excellent Farrell penalty made it 12-6.
The question now was could England keep their levels up in terms of physicality, intensity and precision?
The answer was yes, even in these testing weather conditions. Another smart kick from Farrell turned South Africa around and while England couldn't capitalise, it felt like the Boks were still on the back foot.
Then, a moment of brilliance from Farrell saw him slot a monstrous drop goal from around 47 metres out to put England over a converted try in front. Borthwick's men were still in the ascendency. A fifth World Cup final appearance was coming into view.
Meanwhile, Boks head coach Jacques Nienaber was continuing to shuffle his pack and the change to bring on the likes of prop Ox Nche started to swing the pendulum towards the defending champions.
And the Boks' renewed power from their 'bomb squad' at scrum time set up a tense finale when Snyman barged his way over on 69 minutes. It was now a two-point contest.
A poor kick from the otherwise superb full-back Freddie Steward and then a knock-on allowed South Africa to win a debatable scrum penalty. TV replays showed Vincent Koch had angled in but instead, referee Ben O'Keeffe decided to penalise Ellis Genge.
Pollard - England's nemesis from four years ago - then broke their hearts again to snatch a victory which had looked unlikely for so long.
"I must start with paying a lot of credit to England," Nienaber said. "I thought they were outstanding on the night. They had a very good tactical plan and they really put us under a lot of pressure. We will have to improve in terms of that, if New Zealand decide to maybe use the same tactic.
"It took us some time to get to grips with it. That is probably the strength of this team. They find a way, even if things are not going our way, to get a result. It took them [his players] probably 70 minutes to get a foothold in the game. They just refused to give up and they fought to the end so I am very proud of that."
While it will hurt for those in Paris tonight as well as for those back home, this was a display so many England fans had craved under Borthwick and perhaps this showing will be the springboard for brighter days ahead.
The likes of George Martin epitomised what the future could hold for England with his brilliant display but ultimately it is the Springboks who have taken the next step and they are now 80 minutes away from retaining their crown.