Paramilitary gunmen fired at least 50 shots at security lines as mobs launched a barrage of petrol and blast bomb attacks during ferocious street violence in the city.
Police and soldiers discharged 430 baton rounds and used water canons in a bid to drive back thugs who went on the rampage after a controversially re-routed Orange Order parade. They also returned live fire.
Seven guns were seized and a bomb-making factory was discovered in the Highfield estate in north Belfast.
One man was critically injured after being caught in an explosion, while another member of the public was wounded in the gunfire.
More than 2,000 police officers and soldiers were needed to deal with Saturday's mayhem as it spread overnight into surrounding towns and villages in Co Antrim.
Cars, lorries and buses were being hijacked and set alight so regularly that roads were closed and motorists urged to stay at home.
As detectives began studying masses of CCTV footage in a bid to identify the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force paramilitaries behind much of the chaos, Sir Hugh called his men and women heroes who could have been killed.
He said: "Officers were shot at last night. We are very lucky we do not have dead officers this morning.
"They were shot at by paramilitary groups from the loyalist side.
"What I saw was a very professional response to one of the most dangerous riot situations in the history of policing in the United Kingdom.
"It is unique to Northern Ireland for officers to come under live fire in what was a public order situation."
Having made several arrests, police also have suspected gunmen captured on film.
After clashes in north, west and east Belfast, loyalists in the towns of Ballymena, Antrim, Carrickfergus, Larne, Ballyclare and Glengormley then either blocked roads or petrol bombed police.
Arsonists destroyed a branch of the Northern Bank in Cloughfern, Newtownabbey, although the safe survived intact.
Gangs of youths also gathered in the village of Ahoghill, Co Antrim, which has been blighted by several weeks of sectarian attacks, to burn out cars, attack homes and pelt police with fireworks.
The disorder forced the cancellation of Mass at Harryville Catholic church in Ballymena, plagued by sectarian hatred in the past.
Even though calm was eventually restored to most parts yesterday morning, including the West Circular Road in Belfast where the trouble was at its most ferocious, there were sporadic outbursts as tensions remained high.
Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain, who is to be briefed by Mr Orde today, condemned the thugs involved and challenged Orangemen and unionist politicians to be equally critical. He said: "This rioting and attacks on the police and army are totally unacceptable.
"Attempted murder cannot in any way be justified. There can be no ambiguity or excuse for breaking the law."
Violence flared after the tense Whiterock march in west Belfast which was forced away from its traditional route after objections from Catholic homes.
Orangemen were livid at the decision by the Parades Commission, but the Chief Constable blamed the loyal order for provoking the disorder by appealing for street protests.