The morphogenesis of developing embryos and organs relies on the ability of cells to remodel their contacts with neighbouring cells. Using quantitative modelling and laser nano-dissection, we probed the mechanics of a morphogenetic process, the elongation of Drosophila melanogaster embryos, which results from polarized cell neighbour exchanges. We show that anisotropy of cortical tension at apical cell junctions is sufficient to drive tissue elongation. We estimated its value through comparisons between in silico and in vivo data using various tissue descriptors. Nano-dissection of the actomyosin network indicates that tension is anisotropically distributed and depends on myosin II accumulation. Junction relaxation after nano-dissection also suggests that cortical elastic forces are dominant in this process. Interestingly, fluctuations in vertex position (points where three or more cells meet) facilitate neighbour exchanges. We delineate the contribution of subcellular tensile activity polarizing junction remodelling, and the permissive role of vertex fluctuations during tissue elongation.