Andre Villas-Boas' team left it late but eventually managed to find a breakthrough against a resilient Saints side thanks to a late winner from the talismanic Welshman
Southampton had the better chances in the first half and could have been ahead had it not been for some fine saves from Hugo Lloris, who pushed a fierce Rickie Lambert free kick onto the post.
Spurs showed more fight after the break but the visitors put in an impressive display and looked like they would deservedly leave north London with a point only for Bale to smash home a vital late winner.
Aaron Lennon returned from injury for the home side while Scott Parker was left out of the squad altogether. Mauricio Pochettino, meanwhile, brought Luke Shaw back into the Saints side in the absence of Danny Fox.
The start of the match was delayed by 30 minutes because of travel problems in north London, but that didn't stop Spurs making a quick start. Jermain Defoe went close inside five minutes, but fired his shot into the side-netting.
Moments later the visitors wasted a glorious chance on the counterattack, as Nathaniel Clyne raced away down the right flank before firing a half-volley inches wide of Lloris' far post.
The hosts began to fade in the match, with Pochettino's side taking control and creating chances; Guly do Prado this time bombed forward down the right flank but Michael Dawson made a last ditch challenge to cut out his attempted pass to Rickie Lambert.
Spurs then survived another scare thanks to Lloris. The Frenchman got down superbly to palm Lambert's free kick onto the post before holding on to Steven Davis' follow-up header from a cross only seconds later.
Villas-Boas would have had stern words with his players during the break and it seemed to have an immediate impact as Spurs made a much brighter start to the second half.
But that period of pressure lasted barely 10 minutes before the Saints again began dictating the tempo of the game once more, with Pochettino's side penning Spurs in their own half with a succession of corners.
Tottenham rode out the danger, and began to find their feet as an attacking force. Clint Demspey had a shot from the edge of the area but the American's half-volley was wastefully miscued over the bar.
Roared on by the home support, Spurs rallied for a late winner and had a handball claim against Clyne turned down in amongst a goal-mouth scramble as they began to lay siege to the Saints' box.
Another penalty appeal was also turned down by Mark Clattenburg as Bale went down under Shaw's challenge inside the area.
But just as some Spurs fans feared the worst, Bale finally came alive. The Welshman, peripheral for much of the match, picked the ball up outside the area before driving a fierce, swerving show past the hapless Artur Boruc, sending White Hart Lane into raptures.