Australia were reeling at 4-174 at the break with Michael Clarke on nine and George Bailey yet to face a ball.
Spinner Monty Panesar, recalled to the England side for his first Ashes Test since 2009, capped England's fightback by bowling Steve Smith for six on the last ball of the middle session.
Coasting at 1-155 with Chris Rogers (72) and Shane Watson (51) on top of the bowling, Australia lost 2-0 in six deliveries.
Watson was desperately seeking three figures to address a glaring concern in his career stats.
Unfortunately for the talented allrounder, he fell to Jimmy Anderson for 51 - his 21st half-century in a 48-Test career that has included only three hundreds.
Watson added 121 for the second wicket with Rogers, who was looking comfortable and needed a big score after a double failure in last month's Brisbane Test.
But Rogers played a poor shot away from his body and was caught behind as offspinner Graeme Swann removed the 36-year-old for the seventh time in Tests in 2013.
A lame-looking shot to point by David Warner (29) was Australia's only early blemish as the home side reached 1-46 at lunch in a rain-shortened session that featured only 14.2 overs.
Panesar was unlucky not to remove Rogers on 27 when an lbw appeal was turned down. England called for a review but the ball was found to be just clipping leg stump which meant the umpire's call was upheld.
Clarke won the toss in overcast conditions and declared the wicket looked outstanding, while rival captain Alastair Cook said the pitch was very dry.
AUSTRALIA FIRST INNINGS
C ROGERS c Prior b Swann 72 203 167 11 0
D WARNER c Carberry b Broad 29 36 32 4 0
S WATSON c & b Anderson 51 163 119 6 1
M CLARKE not out 9 26 18 2 0
S SMITH b Panesar 6 22 17 1 0
Sundries (5b 2nb) 7
Four wickets for 174
Fall: 34 (Warner), 155 (Watson), 155 (Rogers), 174 (Smith).
Bowling: J Anderson 15-5-45-1 (1nb), S Broad 10-2-42-1, G Swann 13-2-35-1, M Panesar 15.3-4-30-1, B Stokes 5-2-17-0 (1nb).
Batting time: 227 mins. Overs: 58.3.
Umpires: Marais Erasmus (RSA), Kumar Dharmasena (SRL).