With players dropping like flies due to cramp in scenes that resembled that other form of Saturday night entertainment, Casualty, and playmaker Kelly Smith unable to run due to injury but staying on as all three substitutions had been made, England showed great spirit to take the game to spot-kicks.
France's first penalty from Camille Abily was saved by the excellent Karen Bardsley, but a poor effort from Claire Raffery from 12 yards allowed France back into the shoot-out and all the pressure fell to Faye White on the last spot-kick, with the captain rattling the bar.
In normal time, Jill Scott put England in front against the run of play with a superb goal after 59 minutes, but with just two minutes remaining, Elise Bussaglia outdid the Everton midfielder with an even better finish to take the game to extra-time.
Smith has been England's star player for many a year but has been below par at this tournament and her struggles continued inside 30 seconds in Leverkusen as she wasted a great chance to put her side in front.
England retained possession from the kick-off and Karen Carney produced a superb bending pass in behind the defence that allowed Smith to take a touch around goalkeeper Celine Deville. However, her weak shot from a tight angle was cut out by Laura Georges.
An early setback averted, France slowly grew into the game and began to dominate in midfield. After 25 minutes, Gaetane Thiney forced Bardsley into a fine diving stop with a dipping volley from the edge of the box for her side's first decent chance of the match.
The talented Louisa Necib threatened intermittently and drove one shot narrowly over from the edge of the area to leave England hearts in mouths. It was evidence of the growing confidence of France, and their increasing grip on the game.
England struggled to retain possession for any meaningful amount of time and left striker Ellen White, who scored a superb lob in the final group game against Japan, far too isolated as they struggled to make an impression on the game.
France emerged strongly from the half-time break as Marie-Laure Delie fired just wide, but England took the lead out of nothing on 59 minutes thanks to Scott's moment of genius as she struck a shot over Deville from 20 yards after collecting a pass from Rachel Yankey and holding off a marker.
It came firmly against the run of play and France responded again as they besieged the England box. Ellen White may have been isolated in attack but she made a key contribution at the back when heading off the line to deny Laure Lepailleur.
France could not be constrained though and on 88 minutes they had their equaliser. The ball popped out to Bussaglia on the edge of the box following a scramble and she produced a glorious shot with the inside of her left boot that pinged in off the inside of the post.
England, who had made some questionable substitutions when removing both full-backs for two World Cup debutants late on, were shattered, and an injury to Smith with all substitutes used effectively meant they were down to 10 for extra-time.
France looked the more likely to triumph but after 103 minutes Ellen White had a glorious chance to win the game when she raced on to a flick-on from Smith and bore down on goal. However, the striker rifled her effort into the side netting.
With captain Faye White cramping up in pain and goalkeeper Bardsley clutching her ribs, it was a wonder that England could continue but, bravely, they did so, and clung on when Eugenie Le Sommer headed over at the back post from a cross from Elodie Thomis.
However, they succumbed in the penalty shoot-out to exit the tournament in cruel circumstances.